An Ode, and Some Inspiration

Christy and Liam

I spent a blissful day up at Silverwood yesterday, watching Christy and Liam, as well as a few other friends and lots of area pros.  It was a big “two shows in one” weekend, running three days, and some big names were in attendance.  Ken Borden was there with Rashka, who’s been a USDF HOTY for the last three years running, at Training, First and Second, and it’s easy to see why this horse has more than 20 scores in excess of 80%.  Yvonne Barteau and and her Grand Prix powerhouse GP Raymeister (who, incidentally, is Rashka’s sire) are always fun to watch, and they didn’t disappoint in the musical freestyle I caught.

As much fun as it is to watch grand prix riders on fancy warmbloods, more than anything I still enjoy watching OTTBs go down the centerline.  For me, Christy and Liam stole the show, garnering two more scores toward the bronze medal (yay!!!!) and really illustrating what teamwork is all about. It was a hot day, and the footing at Silverwood is deeper than at home. Christy rode her first test conservatively, to ensure she had gas in the tank for her debut at Second Level.  They put in a good ride and got the score they needed before going back for round two.

During that second warm up, Christy commented that she could feel that Liam was getting tired.  It really didn’t show during the test, however – as usual, the two were in beautiful synch and harmony.  After the ride, however, it became clear that Liam had given Christy his all.  When I took him out to graze and cool off, he was reluctant to leave his stall, trudging slowly (that’s so unlike him) with his head drooping.  Poor boy!   He had been right there in the zone with Christy, and had left it all on the field.  He perked up when we showered him with treats after he had a bath, though.  He knew he had done well! I was overjoyed when we learned that Christy had indeed earned a score in excess of 60% at Second.  She’s halfway to her bronze!  It’s pretty exciting.

I also watched two other OTTBs.  Linus, a 10 year old that evented Prelim last year, went out at PSG and I-1.  He is a magnificent athlete and is a tempi-change machine.  His owner, Carol, says he’s the most athletic horse she’s ever had, and that dressage comes naturally for him.  Watching Linus, who carries a spectacular amount of muscle on his light Thoroughbred frame, is truly exciting and inspirational for anyone who loves Thoroughbreds.  What he lacks in extravagant gaits he makes up in athleticism and enthusiasm.  It’s going to be a fun summer watching him.

Kelly and Bubba execute a very pretty stretchy trot.

Our friend Kelly also had her green bean, a 5 year old OTTB she’s nicknamed Bubba, out for his first dressage show at Training.  He’s done a couple baby combined tests, and is showing a lot of promise.  However, he had some greenie moments during his test, taking exception to the judges booth and spooking whenever he came near C. Kelly rode with tact and empathy, staying quiet but insisting upon forward.  As much as I loved watching Liam and Linus, Bubba’s test was inspiring for me.  Kelly did a wonderful job of keeping the horse on the aids, and had some very nice moments, including the pretty stretchy trot pictured to the left.

The Thoroughbreds all acquitted themselves very well, and garnered compliments from onlookers, who admired how light and refined they appeared in the ring – the differences really are evident because most of the horses doing rated dressage shows are heavier warmbloods and draft crosses.

This morning I uploaded all the video I took yesterday, and watched all the rides once again.  Then I put on my britches and headed out to the barn, where I rousted Derby from a late-morning nap in the sun.  With visions of Bubba’s stretchy trot in my head and Christy’s words from last week’s lessons ringing in my ears (“He needs to be rounder.  Rounder still.  Half halt.  Again.  Again. Soften the inside rein.  Inside leg on. Half halt. Again!!! MAKE IT HAPPEN!”) I paid attention to differentiating between bracing contact and good, roundness. I half halted, and half halted, and half halted, but I was able to get Derby’s back up, and best of all, I was able to hold it.  Getting and maintaining roundness will be the absolute key for us in the coming weeks.  Everything is so much easier when you’re operating from that essential “ready” position, with a forward, round, connected horse.


The core of the problem

Our first lesson in more than a month

As you’ve probably surmised due to the infrequent blog posts, the last few weeks haven’t been too exciting.  I’ve been working hard on rebuilding my riding muscles and regaining my seat, and at the same time, I’ve been gradually stepping up the work Derby is doing.   I’m now doing 30-40 minute rides, with about 10-15 minutes of trotting.   For the time being, building our fitness is my main priority.

Now that we’re doing some decent work and are able to sustain our efforts for a little while I decided that it was time to re-start lessons with Christy.  We are thinking of going out to a schooling show mid-August just to get Derby out and about.  We won’t be ready for anything, really, and will probably do a walk-trot test.  But I don’t want to embarrass myself, and I’ve been worried about the quality of our walk.

Derby would prefer to shuffle slowly, and I’ve been working on improving his tempo and energy.  He’s doing much better lately but we lose that energy and rhythm, I’ve noticed, when we circle or serpentine.

As we talked, I sat easily, with loopy reins, and Derby walked – a nice, swingy walk with good energy.  Christy had me gather the reins, and immediately Derby’s stride shortened.  From there, Christy had me keep my legs off Derby, instead, opening up my hip angle, sitting up straight and inviting a bigger stride.  It worked.  Derby went from a stodgy little walk to a nice swingy one.

A nice walk

Christy’s eagle eye had noticed something.  When I gathered the reins up, I leaned forward – very slightly – but it was enough to close my hip angle, causing Derby to shorten his stride.    We experimented with this a little bit, and when I mentioned the difficulties I had maintaining tempo when asking for bend on circle or serpentine, she watched carefully as I asked Derby to bend with my inside leg.

Sure enough, she spotted it.  Whatever I was doing with my inner leg was causing me to close my hip angle.   We figured it out – I was reverting to old habit of curling my heel up when applying my leg.

I've closed my hip and Derby has shortened his stride.

The difference in stills from the video Christy snapped is stark. Derby’s head has popped up and his back is hollow.

From there Christy had us move to trotting, reminding me to post hips to hands, keeping my hip angle open, and engaging my core muscles.    When I followed her instructions, Derby responded immediately, rounding and relaxing, chewing the bit.

But the second I stopped riding,  Derby hollowed and his head came up . “Core!” Christy called in my direction.  I re-engaged my core and opened my hips and the gait quality improved.   Christy reminded me that Derby is very much a “seat horse” – he’s sensitive to the slightest movement of the rider  This is both a blessing and a curse, she told me.  Once I get control of my body and my aids, I’ll be able to influence Derby very subtly.  It’s going to take some work to get there, though!

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The sharper the knife, the less you cry

Cooks have a saying:  the sharper the knife, the less you cry.  Sharp knives are easier to handle and less dangerous than dull blades – they slice effortlessly through veggies and meat.  A dull knife, on the other hand, is more dangerous, because it requires more effort of the user to achieve the desired effect.  And like a sharp knife is easier to use, a responsive horse is easier to ride effectively.

This saying came to mind tonight as I was leading Maddie back to the barn after a lesson, and grinning like a fool because it had been a good ride.    I told Christy that I wanted to work on my lower leg aids, namely, my ability to use my spurs accurately. I had strapped them on last night for the first time in months, and some irritated behaviors from the mare told me that I had inadvertently banged her with them a couple times. While my leg position is much improved, I still revert to my old  “toes out” posture when I get tired.   Developing awareness and acuity with the spurs requires me to continue to improve my leg position and stability.

So as I warmed up, I practiced deliberately putting my lower leg on,  releasing, putting my spur on and releasing.  However, as I did this I wasn’t getting much of a response from the mare.  I was also having trouble dropping my heals and holding a good position – my hips were tight, and probably a bit tired from two strenuous rides yesterday, and my earlier ride today on Oliver.   After promising Christy that I’d continue to work on my flexibility and strength, I took the spurs off.

So the lesson changed course. As we worked on my leg position and aids, which were partly successful some of the time, Christy told me that I was reverting to my bad habit of curling my heel upward, sticking it in the horse’s side and leaving it there.  I focused on being more deliberate with my aids.

However, I wasn’t getting the response I was seeking.  Unsure of whether or not I was eliciting a response because I guess I forgot what a correct leg yield felt like, I asked Christy watch for response while I attempted to leg yield out on a circle.   I got a big  fat nothing. We talked about it a bit and I told Christy that I wanted the horse that I started riding last May.  Mads was so light and sensitive then, and would respond instantly to any aid.  And I’ve dulled her responses.

So we started working on redeveloping a response,  We started at the walk.  Christy asked me to back up any requests I made of the horse with the whip, but advised me to treat any response – a head toss, a break to trot or canter, as good and to praise it, and to ride it.  My first opportunity came quickly as Mads ignored me when I tightened my leg against her.  I gave her a little whack with the whip and she hopped into a trot.  “That’s fine,” Christy said, as I half-halted and brought Maddie back to a walk.  We repeated this a few times, and within a few minutes, we produced a nice little leg yield down the quarter line!

Christy had us move into a trot.  I got the mare moving in a nice forward gait with good contact.  I asked for a leg yield on a 20 meter circle, and didn’t get a satisfactory response.  I gave the mare a little swat, and she propped and swished her tail – and went strongly forward. “That’s fine,” Christy called to me. “You need to get her in front of your leg!”

We continued on the circle at an energetic and connected trot.  “You have her undivided attention now,” Christy said as we breezed around her.  And she was right.  The mare had one ear back on me, and was steady in the bridle. I asked for the leg yield again, and … Maddie floated outward.  There it was!   I was thrilled.

I went to change directions, and as we moved off in a trot, Christy asked me what I thought of the upward transition.  There was no denying it, it was pretty crappy.   We half-halted and walked, and I asked for the trot, reinforcing it with a tap of the whip.  The mare stepped off immediately.   This was better.  We tried it again, and I asked for more enthusiasm, by being a bit more emphatic with my leg aids, but not touching the whip.  She went straight forward, into contact, with no head shaking or nonsense.  “That’s good!”  said Christy, as I let the mare trot on.  “Now, how light can you make your aids, but still keep that immediate response?”

We walked, and after a minute, I closed my legs softly on the mare’s sides.  She struck off in a nice trot right on the spot.

This was a seminal lesson,and an empowering one.  I can fix my forwardness and responsiveness issues if I align my mental intent and my aids, and take care to reinforce my aids with whip or spurs if (and only if) necessary.  I was amazed at the progress we made in one short ride.  I can’t wait to get back in the saddle, and continue to hone and sharpen my aids, and Maddie’s responses.  One thing I need to remember though is to stay consistent.  To do otherwise is unfair to the horse.  I need to ride every transition crisply, encouraging and rewarding prompt response, and reinforcing my aids clearly when needed.