My Schoolmaster

derby and me

He’s as good as Christy at diagnosing what I’m doing wrong.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and since I’ve ridden for that matter.  Between travel for work, and a nasty cold, it’s been more than a week since I last rode.   And when more than a few days passes between rides, I tend to fell pretty out of whack.

“Out of whack” has been a recurring theme for me lately, as we’ve been doing more work on my position.  We also determined that my hands have become unsteady, causing Derby to object stridently. So regaining some semblance of independence in my hands has been at the top of my list.

For my first ride back (yesterday) I spent a lot of time in two-point, reawakening my riding muscles (and garnering a protest from them this morning.)  Then, once I was warmed up, I started to build some connection by not shortening the reins, but by working on riding Derby out and down into contact.  By keeping my hands where they belong, above his withers, I was able to create contact that Derby could start to trust not to jab him in the mouth.

Any time I erred, and started to draw my hands back to my hips, my schoomaster would let me know immediately, by inverting and flinging his head.  As soon as I would push my hands forward, back to where they belong, Derby rewarded me by rounding and moving nicely.

Today I was able to accomplish more.  I could feel things clicking into place and we had some nice work.  Best of all, the work on my position has paid dividends, in the form of more effective aids.  In addition to moving forward nicely, Derby is also responding very well to my requests for lateral movement.  Christy has commented that it’s our job to create the space we want the horse to fill, and I’m starting to experience that first hand.

I have one more ride tomorrow night before heading out of town for a few days, and I have more travel coming up over the next couple weeks.  Things will be spotty for a while, but the feedback from my schoolmaster makes getting back on track easier!


Unfinished business

My plans with Derby have come to a halt for the time being, as he’s busy brewing an abscess in his right front.   The hoof is warm, and getting warmer, and it’s clearly tender.  So as that situation resolves, I’ve been riding Manny and Tucker, and they’ve been giving me invaluable feedback on a bad habit of mine – allowing my hands to creep downward and back, instead of keeping them up over the horse’s withers.   It turns out that Manny and Tucker, with their shorter, higher-set necks, are the perfect schoolmasters for this particular problem.  They also helped me do a better job of using my inside leg to ride the horse out into the contact, another sticking point for me.

I started tackling the problem while riding Manny in a lesson.  Christy caught me pulling his head in, instead of riding him out to the contact, so she had me focus on sitting up and carrying my hands correctly, keeping them quiet, while at the same time using my inside leg to encourage Manny to bend and soften.  As I did so, Manny responded positively.  His back came up and he really engaged for me. The lesson for me was “less is more, but ‘less’ has to be correct.”

I also had a very redemptive ride on Tucker recently.   He’s well trained but he is really hard for me to ride.  However, using some of the tactics from my lesson on Manny, I was finally able to have a decent ride on Tucker.   What both rides really showed me is that I am very hands-y, and am over reliant (and flat out incorrect).  I have rides on both slated for later this week – I’d like to get this bad habit fixed for once and for all before I get back on the Derbster.

Getting by

Stall rest for Derby continues, but so far he’s handling it well.  Christy tells me that he’s quiet during the day, and though he’s a bit grumpy now and then, for the most part, he’s pretty laid back.  We’ve started doing some hand walking, so I’m able to get him out of his stall for a few minutes at least.  I’m also doing as much as I can to provide him with entertainment and distraction in his stall, including using small-hole haynets to make his hay last a bit longer and equipping him with a couple different LikkIts.

Solitary confinement.

In the meantime, Ive been riding Tucker, who’s made a few appearances on this blog previously.  He’s a fancy little Quarter Horse with a lot of training.  I’m still feeling a bit out of whack on him still – he has an entirely different build and way of going than Derby.  We’re getting more into synch, and Christy tells me we look okay, even if I still feel out of balance and ineffective.    I’m trying to ride a few different horses while Derby is laid up, and get the most out of this time as I can.



Real sitting trot!

In my defense, he’s hard to put together. Derby doesn’t have ideal conformation for dressage. He’s a thoroughbred, and is built downhill. (Nice badonkadonk, though!)

Today I had a real breakthrough , and it was totally unexpected. We achieved real sitting trot. By “real” I mean connected, round and working back to front. And it was amazing. More specifically, it was an epiphany!

But first, let me tell you what we’ve been up to lately. Ofter the debacle at the last show, I told Christy that 2013 starts now. She upped the ante on me, and started to require work in two-point and without stirrups.  The last few weeks have been difficult, but interesting.  As I work new muscles, really getting into my hip flexors and abs in particular, I’m starting to see the effect my biomechanics have on Derby’s way of going.

The work in two-point is a case in point. Contrary to popular belief (or at least how I learned a zillion years ago) two-point isn’t simply a matter of standing up in the stirrups and resting your knuckles against the horse’s neck.

“Which muscles are you using?” Christy said as Derby and I tootled around in what would commonly pass as a two-point.

“Ermm. None?” I ventured.

“Right. None. And your horse is shuffling along on his forehand,” she said. “Now try this …”

With constant coaching, Christy put us together, and taught me that you can influence the horse while in two-point. But it has to be an effective two point, I’ve learned.  At first, I thought Christy was crazy when she got after me to put Derby on the bit, get him round and bend him – in two point.  But as she put us together, guiding me into a balanced version of the two point, Derby miraculously began to round and carry himself.

“See?” she said.  “It’s not about training the horse.  It’s training the rider.”

Unfortunately for my muscles, she’s right.  The work in two-point moved into a variety of no-stirrup exercises, and then we started to put things back together, applying the new lessons, as I posted.   I had a couple moments where I generated real throughness with the new position – and I wasn’t demanding it from the horse, as much as I was putting myself into the position that encouraged the horse to go there.  Experiencing this was a real revelation in and of itself, especially when Christy had me practice going back and forth between  “doing it wrong” and trying to maintain a correct position.

Again, the effect on the horse was immediate and noticeable.  As soon as I’d arch my back and stick my butt out (whether posting or in two-point), Derby’s gait would immediately slow.  Re-positioning myself into my more correct and balanced position fixed the problem just as quickly.  At first I resisted Christy’s suggestion of going back and forth between bad and good.  However, now I realize that she was teaching me to feel my point of balance, and what happens when I deviate from that point.

So fast forward to today.  I had done quite a bit of work and was taking a walk break.  Derby started to fuss, resisting contact by flipping his head.  When he does this, Christy has had me working on getting him forward, holding the reins, and letting his pulling anchor me even more deeply into the saddle.  Today, as we worked things out, something different happened.  When I kicked Derby forward when he was resistant, I closed my legs and deepened my seat, holding the reins steady and anchoring myself with my core.  I’ve learned from Christy that when I do this,  any pulling Derby was going to do was only going to make my seat deeper – and it’s now one of my most important tools.  He softened and rounded, and I got a nice walk for a stride or two. Then he popped into a trot.  Because “forward” was absolutely the right answer, I didn’t want to ask him to downshift immediately.  So we trotted, and I chose to sit a few beats.  In that brief moment, I applied some of the learning imparted from Christy and actually rode it with some purpose, drawing on and our work on effective two-point and without stirrups, and made a point of finding my balance and keeping my hip angles open.

Lo and behold, we wound up doing a nice sitting trot.  Derby was on the bit, round and his hind legs were engaged.  And it felt great!
“Christy.   CHRISTY.  Look.  Sitting trot.  His back is up. I’m doing it!!!”  I shrieked to Christy, who was also riding at the time.

“Wow, that looks great!” she replied, stopping to watch.  We went all the way around the arena, and then did it again.  Was this a fluke?  I tried it again.  And got the same good result  I switched directions,and had to work to put Derby together, but we got it done.  We did a couple laps that direction.  I experimented a bit, asking for a big bigger trot with my seat and legs.  It worked.  Derby stepped forward into a bigger gait. I think I’m going to be more effective once I master the sitting trot.

Needless to say, I was thrilled and Christy was happy too.  I was particularly pleased to have put the sitting trot together by myself, by paying attention to what the horse was doing under me, minding my position and using the tools Christy has given me.  I feel like I’m developing some independent competence as a rider. It was a thrilling ride, and I can’t wait to try it again!

Fixing my “Go” button

No, we’re not schooling Spanish walk. He was stomping a fly.

It’s become painfully evident to me that Derby is dead to my leg.  I’m not willing to escalate, and buy a longer whip and sharper spurs.  Ideally, I’d love to be an effective enough rider with a responsive horse to not require either of these accoutrements.   So in my lesson last night, we made getting rid of the whip in one week a goal.  When that happens, I need the horse to be pretty hot off my leg.  Otherwise, we’re going to get nothing accomplished.

Christy has ridden Derby for me, and has dealt with the deadness by insisting that he GO FORWARD NOW.  In all her rides, this insistence has elicited a buck from the protesting equine, but then, magically, the ride improves.  He goes forward.

Last night, I told her that I’d man up and get it done.  Tonight I got to work.  We started out in a nice marching walk, but Derby soon wanted to peter out on me.  I squeezed my legs.  Nothing.   I gave him a good Pony Club boot with both heels.  Nothing.   I took a deep breath, and repeated the Pony Club boot, and applied a simultaneous crack with the whip.

He bucked, and then went forward.  In fact, it was what Christy experienced.   Apres buck, I had a very motivated horse.  He carried himself and was in front of my leg (finally.) The buck was rideable, and frankly, the forwardness was worth it.  I have another lesson tomorrow.  Hopefully the boss will approve.

Fun weekend

Look, I was born too early for My Little Pony. So I’m taking inordinate pleasure in dressing up My Big Pony.

This weekend really couldn’t have been any more beautiful – it was breezy and sunny, with temperatures in the mid 70’s.  While I don’t anything particularly earth-shattering or insightful to offer, I can provide a picture of Derby in his new spring green outfit.

On Saturday we tooled around with Christy and Amy (and Liam and Manny) in the outdoor.  We did quite a bit of canter work, trotted over the poles, and I will admit that I fleetingly thought about trying the x.  I still don’t feel ready to handle things if Derby over-jumps it, though.   He put in an effort that would have cleared 3′ plus, cracking his back (he has quite a bascule) and popping my butt right out of the tack over a couple poles lying on the ground.  I need to be prepared for that to happen – and I would like a better result than riding around his neck and then falling off. So, instead, I did some work in 2-point, letting the stirrups rattle on the bottom of my feet (i.e. keeping my weight on my inner thighs and knee, not the balls of my feet.

To finish the ride, I ran through Training 2 again, and then did some good walk work, focusing on connecting through the outside rein, to cool out.

Today I had the outdoor to myself.  I worked on Derby’s right lead canter, which can feel pretty awful – he can get lateral on it.  So we worked mostly in a circle, and I was able to break up the lateral pairs (I think, at least it felt like it) and get him to round.  That, for me, is real progress.   We also worked on adjustability in canter. Christy was complaining that he wasn’t really covering ground last week in a lesson.  It takes some bravery for me to say MORE CANTER, but today I did it.  Down the long side, I definitely got a bigger gait.

We also went back and forth through the poles.  Derby is starting to pick up his feet and bounce through the poles, rather than shuffle, hitting them as he goes.  This is also a welcome change of events.  I wrapped up by dropping my stirrups.  We trotted around both ways until my thighs were burning.  Then we cooled out, hit the showers, and had a nice long graze.

There’s my Mom, and she has cookies!

Then it was up to Wisconsin to visit Jag.  My dark bay boy has stood outside in the sun all summer, baking is brains out and bleaching himself into a bayskin.  His coat is rough and bleached, but once he sheds his blond hair, he’ll be sleek, shiny and dappled.  October is Jag’s best month. He always looks beautiful. He is fat and happy, sharing a pasture with his pal Stoli up at Wyngate Equestrian.

While I was up there, a rain shower passed over the area, leaving an unbelievably vivid rainbow.  While my camera phone picture left a but to be desired, you can get the gist.  And needless to say, this rainbow was terminating in a Golden Delicious apple tree.  So, no pot of leprechaun gold, but I think the horses would take the apples any day.

It’s not a fluke

My two rides over the weekend were both really nice.  We’re riding in the outdoor every moment possible – the footing is better and it shows in the horses’ gaits.  The footing is also a bit deeper – similar to what we see at shows – and provides some extra conditioning too.
I was disappointed when Derby came up back sore on Thursday, but I wasn’t entirely surprised.  I’ve been working him more over his back in the last week than I have in a long time, and while I’m not killing him with work by any stretch of the imagination, he is working differently.  So on Thursday we simply longed, and Friday Derby had the day off.  Saturday found him much improved, and we had a nice ride in which I was able to generate and hold correct roundness and connection almost from the beginning, and I got it in the canter, too.  I am noticing that Derby is starting to try to lean a bit on my hands, but that’s corrected pretty simply by sitting up and applying leg.

On Sunday, we rode late in the day, after coming home from watching Christy show. It was cool and breezy, and an afternoon rain shower had dampened the footing outside just enough to hold off the dust.  We got going and Derbs felt good but when I asked him to move out at the trot, I got an ‘eh’ response.   So I gave him a smack with the whip – and got a little buck and then canter.  While I didn’t love the buck response, forward was the right answer, so I let him canter.  Derby found the energy he thought he lacked previously, and we did a lap going forwardly, and then on the circle I asked him to round and come into my hands – and he did.  Actually influencing the canter is still so new to me, I can’t believe I can do it! It’s not a fluke after all. 🙂

So work starts again with Monday’s lesson, and we’re looking at getting out to a show mid-August.  Stay tuned!



About six months ago, after riding Derby for me while I was away, Christy commented to me that he “felt just like Jag.”   We train our horses every time we ride, and it stands to reason that they quickly reflect how they’re ridden in how they go.  In this case, Christy was saying (among other things) that Derby wasn’t terribly responsive to aids, because I wasn’t requiring immediate, crisp responses.

I’ve ridden enough different horses to know what she’s talking about.  Generally speaking, horses that Christy has trained (like Liam and Maddie) are unbelievably fun to ride – they are so light and so responsive that that it almost feels like they’re reading your mind.  They respond immediately to the the most gentle of aids.

On the other end of the spectrum are wily lesson horses and horses ridden by beginners.  These horses are good at defending themselves against inconsistent riding, unsteady hands and other rider errors that are uncomfortable for the horse.  They aren’t terribly fun horses to ride.  You have to really work hard to get them to relax and work correctly. In my case, I dulled Derby’s responsiveness and dialed back his forwardness.  I’ve been working on improving my riding – and what upping my expectations of him.

Today we had a fun ride.  Christy and I met at the barn in the morning, to ride before going to Lamplight to watch the freestyles.   It wasn’t terribly hot, so we took advantage of the weather and rode outside.   Keeping my lessons in mind, I focused on keeping Derby on the bit, and holding the contact in order to define clearly where I wanted him to go.  Over all, he made me work here and there but it was a pretty decent ride.  We rode pieces of patterns and transitions, and I was getting nice work and good responses.  We also had some good canter work, doing 20 M circles and then laps.  And during one of those canters, I decided to apply what I’ve been doing in the trot – closing my fingers and closing my legs to hold the contact and encourage the horse forward.  And for a moment – a fleeting moment, he rounded and his back came up.  And that fleeting moment, felt great.   I’ve not been working much at all on the canter, and it was neat to influence the gait.

We cooled out a bit, and then I took Derbs in to untack.  I bent down to remove my spurs before taking him to the wash rack … and found that I’d forgotten to put them on!   His responsiveness is absolutely improving.  That was a nice ride, especially without the added emphasis of spurs.

Christy is going to get the chance to get on Derby again in September.  I hope she can feel an improvement in him this time around!

Separately, the show was interesting.  We watched a number of rides, from First through Fourth, and then a couple FEI freestyles.   As is always the case with a rated show, everywhere you look you see serious equine eye candy.  But only a scant handful of rides showed real connection and throughness.  We saw a lot of leg movers, gaping mouths, tense backs and lateral walks (a serious fault.)  Sure, when you’re watching, you have no idea of the extenuating circumstances the riders are dealing with when they go down the centerline.  I get it – a lot of horses (Derby included) are far different at shows then they are at home.  Still, we saw a lot of upper level and pro rides, and we could see the problems that stem from not really having the horse through.  Tempis didn’t have jump, extensions didn’t have reach and thrust.  Obviously, I’m light years from riding these movements, and I’m not saying this to impugn the riders I saw today.   But I did come away from the show with a new appreciation for how important connection and throughness are for a good ride.

The Path

Derby and I have finally broken through a plateau, and I’m really excited about my lesson tomorrow night.  Last week we finally started producing a show-ring quality trot with real bend, roundness and connection.  We’ve just passed our one-year anniversary together, and we’re putting in some good work – finally.

Saturday and Sunday I rode on my own (not in a lesson.) I swore to myself that I would build on my progress over the last week, focusing on maintaining energy and roundness simultaneously.  I’ve also been working on sharpening Derby’s responsiveness to my aids,  which takes a lot of very deliberate and focused riding from me.

I got out the barn early on Saturday.  All the horses were inside due to some storms that rolled through earlier, and Derby had quite a bit of extra energy to burn.  I actually considered longing him at the outset, but then decided that I needed to work on dealing with extra energy, like I have to do at shows.  Could I get him to focus on me, stay on the aids and work correctly?

The answer is yes.  I put Derbs to work immediately, instead of walking around on the buckle.  I loosened his jaw, poll and neck, moving him around and flexing him right and left.  We stretched down.  We spiraled in and out.  We did serpentines.  And pretty soon, I had a nice, responsive horse.  Once that was achieved, I focused on the trot work, riding lots of patterns and maintaining the energy and forward, while also working in some torture in two-point and some sitting trot too.  Derby’s back was up for the most part and things felt pretty good.

Sunday I was tired, and I’ll admit it, a bit hung over after a late night out with some friends.  The sun was beating down and I wasn’t very motivated, but we ended up having a really good ride.  After warming up inside, I took Derbs to the outdoor, to see if we could replicate our work outside, in a different and more distracting environment.  I put him straight to work in the outdoor, not taking a minute to walk around and look at things.  We didn’t have the energy we did on Saturday, but it was hot as Hell out there in the sun, and I settled for round, steady contact, and we achieved it pretty quickly. We did several laps and some excerpts from some tests, and Derby’s back stayed up, and the contact was steady.  Between the heat and the deeper outside footing, I didn’t push it.  We hit the showers after accomplishing what I set out to do.

It’s been a process to get to this point.  And now that I’m starting to get correct work, I know the next steps will be to take the time to build the correct muscling that will enable Derby to carry us nicely into Training level, while building the trot and then repeating everything for the canter. So, a lot remains to be done, certainly, but the path doesn’t look as steep and bumpy as it did three weeks ago.



My riding has been on hiatus for a few weeks.  Derby was back sore after the last show, and then I went away for more than a week. Between the two of us, we’ve had a bit of a vacation from work.  Excruciatingly hot weather last week derailed my plans for Derby – I was going to put him into full training while I was away.  But a week of 100+ temperatures really slowed down Christy’s schedule. So while I loafed on the beach, Derby spent his days sunbathing and enjoying attention from Caitlin and Hanna, who groomed him and gave him refreshing showers while I was away.

Thankfully, temperatures have swung downward, and today was a beautiful, breezy day in the mid-80’s. I started the day with a visit to Jag, who really enjoyed the vigorous currying and brisk shower I gave him.  Then I met Christy at the barn to go look at some Thoroughbreds that are coming off the track.  We saw some real beauties and some solid-citizens in the making.  We were like kids in a candy store!

Finally, we made it back to Silver Fern.   I fetched Derbs, cleaned him up and hopped on.  There’s something to be said for taking a little break from riding – it helps still the chattering voices that tend co accompany most rides.  I simply focused riding Derbs forward and out into the contact.  That was it.  I kept my hands still, and made a point of staying out of his face, focusing instead on inviting him to stretch into the bit.  His back came up and we had a pretty decent ride.  We cantered a bit too, and I almost got a canter-walk transition (Derbs threw a single trot step in) when I half halted and asked for the downward.  I took it easy, only riding about a half-hour, to ensure we both have plenty in the tank for our lesson tomorrow.

Even though today was a lot cooler than it’s been, it’s clear that the heat has taken a toll on the horses.  Jag, who has been in full dappled bloom, has lost some weight.  So has Derby, to the point where I had the vet out to look at him and pull blood. Everything looks normal, so she’s having me keep him in at night, and keep up the supplemental feeding (extra hay, beet pulp, soaked alfalfa, etc.).  We’re set to have cooler temperatures all week.  I’m looking forward to riding, and I think we’ll all enjoy the more moderate weather.