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!

More core.

New green duds

I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching Christy ride her horses, and while I always learn a lot, watching her develop Remy over the last year has been especially informative, chiefly because in taking the skinny young OTTB from the track to the dressage ring required her to instill rhythm, contact and cadence in the horse.  Within a few months of his arrival, Christy had Remy going well, and I especially enjoyed watching her work the long-legged boy at the trot, improving his use of his back.  They would go around the arena, doing circles and serpentines at a spanking gait, with Remy staying round and yielding nicely when Christy asked for bend.   I memorized what that looked like.  And I’m trying to emulate it.

I know that she really had to work for that nice gait on Remy when he was greener, and part of that work was finding – and holding – her balance.  While Derbs is no Remy, he is similarly sensitive to my position, providing me instant feedback on how I’m sitting.  The degree of his forward motion varies directly with my balance and position on his back.

So instead of “trotting like Remy,” really, I need to be thinking “sit like Christy” in order to produce the big, forward, flowing gaits I seek.   And I got a bit closer to getting there this week.

Thursday night’s lesson focused on many of the same things I noted in my post on Wednesday, and once we got warmed up, I had a very decent working trot going that Derby was pretty much sustaining.  But I have struggled with maintaining that gait when we do anything other than go down the long side.  So I was paying particular attention to my position (and the horse’s feedback) in my lesson.

As we continued working, things improved, until finally, we were doing a very nice 20m circle around Christy, who had become effusive in her praise.  I had contact, I had forward, I had bend — and it was all pretty easy, I didn’t have to work to hold it. What had I done?  Well, in addition to the checklist I noted in my blog post on Wednesday, I had added one more thing.  Core engagement.  When I engaged my core, I could feel my hip angles opening as my leg lengthened and I sat up taller.  Derby immediately responds to this – when I finally put myself into the right position, he rewards me immediately by rounding and carrying himself nicely.

So here’s my updated checklist:

  • Use the inside rein.  If he doesn’t respond to a softening of the inside rein, and continues to hang, get busy with the inside leg while insisting with the inside rein (e.g. a direct rein).  My desire to not hang on the inside rein has gone a bit too far.  I am allowed to use it.
  • When Derby feels “stuck” and braced against me, I need to mix it up.  Flex him, do serpentines and leg yields – anything to get that neck unbraced and softer.
  • Do as little as you can do but as much as you need to do to get the response you want – but be mindful.  If the horse doesn’t respond when I ask nicely, I have to next ask not-so-nicely.  Accepting no response results in a dull horse that’s dead to the aids.
  • Ride with my core engaged, and my leg long and draping around Derby’s sides. 

In other words, sit like Christy!


I’m feeling pretty good about our upcoming outing this weekend.  We’ve done some good work this week, and have made some real progress on our road back to respectability.  My strength and endurance are ratcheting up, and I’m better able to carry myself.  As I take more responsibility for myself, Derby responds by moving more correctly.

What has been really interesting for me has been to watch how changes in my riding are reflected in the horse’s body language, especially his mouth.

When I’m not balanced, not fully independent with my hands, and when I’ve not put the horse together, Derby goes around “smiling” but not out of joy.  His lips are curled back and his mouth gapes.  I think it’s the horse equivalent of gritted teeth.

But when I put myself (and subsequently, the horse) together, and he stretches into the contact, the mouth is closed.

I ride Derby in a plain cavesson, for two reasons.  First, and foremost, a flash is not the solution to our problems. And secondarily, I simply don’t like the way flashes look, though I do understand the role they play in stabilizing a bit and helping to prevent a horse from crossing his jaw.  But as I said, gaping resistance on Derby’s part is a direct result of poor riding on mine.

The aforementioned cavesson, and the rest of our tack, are in the garage, freshly cleaned and soaking up some oil.  I’ll buff everything to a shine tonight, and then tackle my grimy boots.  Then we’ll be ready – really and truly ready – for our outing tomorrow. We’re going out at Intro A and B – again – but hopefully we’ll pass the test and will be declared ready to start thinking seriously about Training.


Don’t get through it. Perform it.

A nice moment. One of several, for a change.

Day by day, things are getting a bit easier with the new, longer leathers and subsequent position changes.  I’m still a long way from being solid and strong in the saddle but I can feel improvement daily.   In today’s lesson, we made a show-ring quality trot a priority.  Sounds easy, but for me, at the moment, it’s not.   Putting the horse together, while maintaining a decent forward gait in a seat that still feels a bit precarious isn’t easy and the relative lack of stability gives me some heebie jeebies now and then.

Wake up, Derby. We need to work hard on quality next, but my seat is coming along.

The ride started out a little “eh.”  I will freely admit that I’ve not been riding as forwardly as I should, due to the above mentioned issues with the new position.  I have been doing some canter work though, and I needed it tonight, to get my pokey pony into gear.

In reality, though, the pokiness wasn’t entirely Derby’s doing.  When I straighten up, open up my hip angles and drape my calves along his sides, he goes forward nicely,  I’ve been reverting to trying to drive with my foot hovering on the brake.

Once we got warmed up, we ran through Intro A.  The results were uninspiring.   “Don’t just get through it,” Christy insisted.  “Perform it.”

A-ha.  That gave me a new (and badly needed) perspective.  I was just going through the movements, and it showed. I rode it again, this time with some purpose.  It got better, especially as I paid attention to riding from my seat and legs, and staying out of Derby’s mouth, quieting my hands.

Free walk. This is coming along.

We then went through Intro B.  Finally, things were clicking into gear. As I rode Derby more forwardly, Christy observed that he really started to carry himself.  It felt great, and in addition to some nice roundness and contact, I also had his back up and his back end under me.  I love that feeling – when you have the horse packaged up, they feel so together, responsive and maneuverable.

Overall, I’m finally able to produce some decent gait quality and keep it for more than just a fleeting instant.  I hope we keep progressing!

Tomorrow I need to send in my first show entry.  It’s a schooling show up at Silverwood, and I’m going to ride Intro A and B.  I was hoping to ride C but as you can see from the canter picture above, we aren’t ready to take that into the show ring.  First things first – I have to re-establish the basics before I can even think of doing more.  We’re not ready to really perform the canter in public … yet.  For now, I’ll have to content myself with how pretty the late afternoon sun makes everything look, especially our new periwinkle duds.  🙂

A friend complimented me on matching the clouds. Yep. Meant to do that.

Pat your head, rub your tummy

Putting it together - still leg, bending, round horse.

I squeezed in a lesson tonight, because we’re slated to have temperatures so cold tomorrow that riding will be questionable at best, and working the horses would be a bad idea.

As I mounted up, I told Christy that I had done my homework last night, posting laps keeping my feet light in the stirrup, while feeling my inner thighs burn.  While things were easier last night, I admitted to Christy that I had found putting it together – getting the horse round and bending, for example, was tough for me while I was also thinking about carrying myself correctly.  I know the muscles aren’t there yet, but I told her I wanted to start working on adding aids as I develop strength.  Multitasking, I said, was tough.

“Like pat your tummy, rub your head,” said Christy.  “Okay, then! ”

She put us on a circle, asking me to spiral in and out at the trot.  Keeping good rhythm was non-negotiable.  Off we went, and I am happy to report that I’m finding it easier and easier to carry myself correctly in the saddle.   We set up the bend by softening the inside rein, and pushing the horse into the outside rein from my inside leg.  However, I was so fixated on my position that I forgot some other essentials.  Christy reminded me that when bending, to move my outside leg back a bit. Duh! I couldn’t believe I had forgotten that, but that’s what I do when I’m focusing on one thing – it’s often to the exclusion of everything else.  Slowly, she put the pieces back together, stopping every now and then to have me stand a couple beats to realign myself.

With Christy’s help, we were able to produce nice circles with respectable quality, and best of all, I was maintaining my steady lower leg and carrying myself correctly. Definite progress.

I think he's man enough to wear pink!


Managing details

Today Derby and I worked for about 40 minutes, still focusing on trot work, and still sticking to the compacted footing on the rail.   That limited my ability to do much, so I focused on doing quality work, as simple as it was.  This meant good upward transitions that were crisp while keeping the horse on the bit, working in a quality trot, with the horse round and forward, and solid downward transitions, at the letter and maintaining quality. Essentially, I worked on managing the details, which is a crucial aspect of riding a good test.

I also focused on another important detail, which was steadying my lower legs, by keeping the majority of my weight on my thighs – not on the balls of my feet, or on my butt.   Until I keep that lower leg steady, I’m not allowing myself to wear spurs – when my leg is loose, I inadvertently spur the horse, and even though I use short, rounded, gentle spurs, the last thing I want to do is deaden the horse to my aids.  Even more importantly, I need to have control over my lower leg if I’m going to deliver aids with any sort of precision. I started out in two-point, did some stand-stand-post-post to feel my leg steadying, and then paid attention to where my weight was resting while I posted. I was rewarded with an easy, forward trot from Derby, who is very inclined to peter out as soon as I fall out of my balanced seat.

We get to recommence lessons tomorrow night. I’m glad we’re back to work!

Creating the space for the movement you want

Hey now. (He's a sensitive guy.)

I’m so tired.  Exhausted, to-the-quick tired.  I worked on a lot of things during today’s ride – but most of all, I worked. Well, I wasn’t alone.  Derbs worked up a sweat too.  The horses have been in for the last two days, so I wanted to give Derbs a long ride to get his blood pumping and alleviate the crushing boredom of being stuck inside.  I’ve also been musing on a conversation Christy and I had on Friday, and was freshly motivated to get back to work.

I took the afternoon off on Friday, and scampered out to the barn to watch Christy ride and sneak in an extracurricular lesson.   I got to watch her on Remy, and during her ride, she asked him some questions she’s not posed to him previously, and he answered with aplomb, elevating his carriage and gaits well beyond Training – or First, for that matter.

After her ride, Christy and I talked about how she produced this dramatic new way of going.  The first thing she said was, “I was working really hard.” And I could see that as she rode – her posture and shorter reins were creating a different framework for Remy, and she had to hold it together –  and keep him through –  while he figured out how to configure himself to fit. “You were creating a new space for the horse,” I concluded.

“That’s a really good way to think about it,” she said, “And you should keep that in mind for Derby, too.”

So I went away thinking about how the rider’s position dictates the horse’s way of going.

I know that Derby is very sensitive to how his rider – whether it’s me, Liz or Christy – is sitting and how they’re balanced. Changes that you could consider fairly slight to the rider’s seat produce dramatic changes in his gaits.   So now I’m thinking a little differently about creating desirable gaits.  It’s less about doing things to the horse.  It’s more about creating the space with my seat that encourages the horse’s back to come up and his shoulders to move,  and framing that space with my legs and hands to further define the movement more exactly.

So after giving the horse yesterday off, today I was ready to ride.  And “creating the space for the movement I want” was top of mind. I was also thinking about something else Christy and I had discussed on Friday, which was the ongoing management from the saddle, conscious or not, that dressage requires.  I still remember the day I realized (as silly as this sounds now) that the horse is never going to magically put himself on the bit and round his back – whether or not that happens, and the degree to which is maintained, is up to the rider. You have to ride almost every stride.  Literally.

So those still reading this post who’ve also made it through my other recent ramblings know that “multitasking” as I call it is still a challenge.  Creating forward gaits, maintaining bend, softening this, half-halting, applying leg, and constantly, constantly checking (and correcting) my position makes for a grueling and intense ride – like today’s.   We had some really nice moments, but they weren’t luck.  I was working hard – to still my lower leg, keep my hips open, feel my seatbones and my balance and adjust accordingly, hold my core and hold the reins, and make all the myriad adjustments along the way.   When I got it right, Derby stepped right up to the plate.  I could feel his back coming up, his back legs pushing, and that magical connectedness when you actually can feel the inside hind and the power that it drives held in the reins.

Afterward, I was surprised at how wiped out I was.  My hair was soaking under my helmet, and my t-shirt was wet – despite the fact that it was in the 30’s this afternoon.  My legs were shot and when I finally got into my car, fired up the seat warmer and started to drive away, I felt like pulling over for a nap before continuing my 25 minute ride home.

It’s just after 6 pm as I’m tapping out this post, and I’m determined that I will NOT crawl into bed before 9 pm.  I’m *still* whipped from today’s ride.   No complaints, though!

Momentus moments.

I can die happy. A moment of suspension, on the bit. Thank you, Lord. And Derby. And Christy.

Tonight as I warmed up for my lesson, Christy and I talked about what Liz had captured when she shot some video (unknown to me) a few nights ago.  For your reference here it is – three minutes of fairly uninspired riding.

A few things are apparent from this video.  First and foremost, I’ve lost the position I’ve been working on – my hip angles are closing a bit, and I’m pitching forward, which on Derby is like stomping the brakes.  Secondly, the contact is really inconsistent –  we’re only round and on the bit oh, maybe 30% of the time. At about 2:00 I do manage to correct myself (somewhat) but at this point it also becomes apparent that I’m acceptng a pretty ho-hum trot from Derby.  Forward is still an issue.


So Christy set some new priorities for us, starting with forward, which will help with both the consistency of our content and gait quality. She also threw trot poles into the mix, to encourage a more dynamic trot.   We got some good work going to the left and got some fancy footwork over the poles. Then we took walk break, talking through a few things, and I picked up the reins to go back to work.  Derby, on the other hand, was checked out.  He was done, or so he thought.  Bless his furry little soul, he was wrong.  We still had a good 20 minutes to go in our lesson.

To say that forward was a problem would be an understatement. After getting no response when I asked him to move forward, I booted him into a canter.  As you can see in the video above, I had to pop him with the whip a few times to keep him going.  After that canter interlude, however, we got some really good work, right before the 3 minute mark.  From that point onward, I was able to keep Derby forward with consistent contact.

Uphill trot.

What was different?  A few things.  First and foremost, I rode proactively, making corrections, half halting – essentially managing every stride. Secondly, I really tried to maintain a balanced position.  And finally, I really kept my core engaged.  Wow, what a difference. Around 2:55 in the video, we start to get some of our best work ever.  Derby is uphill – we even generate some suspension.

“THAT is your working trot!” Christy exclaimed. “That’s the show ring trot!”   I have to make this the new normal.

PS: This is for those who say that riding isn’t hard work. Look at the steam roll off me after living through my lesson with Christy!

When I’m there, he’s there

Within the last month or so, I feel like I’ve finally started to really, truly, legitimately have moments in which I’m riding a connected horse, back to front, in good balance – for the first time, ever. While still fleeting, I can recreate these moments fairly consistently on my own, without Christy micromanaging my every move which is what it took to get me to this point.

Well, that and a lot of riding – five to six days a week, for four years.  Along the way, I also read a variety of books, educated myself going to clinics and shows, and (most importantly) am getting myself into better, stronger physical shape.   Despite these efforts, I am still schooling training level, meaning that I’m probably lacking in the natural talent department (though Christy does note that I’ve started over three times, twice with horses that were very green to dressage, so I guess I feel marginally better.)

That said, I have progressed from simply godawful (no steering, no seat and no clue) to being able to put together a correct Intro level test, and over the last year (with Maddie) starting to delve into some more interesting things, like trot lengthenings and leg yields. I’ve also developed better feel, timing and a certain degree of instinctive responsiveness.

However, that work on Maddie – despite the fact it represents what was technically my most “advanced” work – pales in comparison to the awakening I’ve had over the last month.  And after attending the Dressage Through the Levels symposium with Steffen Peters and Janet Foy this weekend, I think I can finally elucidate what I’ve experienced.

Simply put, generating correct gaits and (at my level at least) movements is easy – dead easy – when the rider is the correct, balanced position, and the horse is connected.

Mind you, getting to that point of correct balance is a bitch, at least for me.  But during those fleeting moments when I’ve been properly aligned, I’ve felt some amazing things.  I’ve felt Derby’s walk transform from a pokey shuffle into a fluid, rolling, swingy walk with overstep.  It feels unlike any walk I experienced on Jag or Mads, and Maddie was a much fancier horse.  I’ve felt him pushing from his hind, over his back, and into my hands at the trot, and I’ve felt that trot come uphill.  I’ve had the odd lovely, quiet, prompt, balanced canter depart, and a couple days ago I felt his back come up when we were cantering, and almost fell off from surprise.  I’ve done a leg yield that felt like floating, with the horse moving away from a quiet aid.

When I’m in that sweet spot, I don’t have to even think about muscling the horse into a movement.  I don’t need to kick kick kick to get the work done – I can whisper, and he hears me. When I’m there, he’s there.   Once I’m there, it’s easy.

When I’m not there, it’s hard.  I struggle to keep the horse going and bending, and invariably, as I’m trying to muscle him into one thing, something else goes wrong – a haunch drifts in, a shoulder pops out.  I’m getting better at recognizing those moments and responding correctly by fixing what’s wrong with me, rather than trying to correct the horse.  Because when I’m out of whack, I can’t blame the horse when impulsion slows or a haunch drifts.  What he does is in response to the ride I’m giving him at the moment.

At the Foy/Peters symposium, the second day started with a session on rider biomechanics. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but was marvelously illustrative nonetheless.  Two lovely riders on lovely, well trained horses were the “victims” for this session.  I say ‘victims’ because Janet Foy instructed the riders to adopt a variety of poor postures, enabling us to see the effect unsteady hands or uneven weights in the stirrups or posting with all your weight on your toes had on their horses.   She emphasized the point that in most cases, the problem with the movement in the test was the direct result of a rider inadequacy – not the willful behavior of the horse.

So now I’m doubly aware of those easy moments that signal I’ve found the sweet spot. Challenge is to figure out how to live there, not visit infrequently.

Multitasking in Motion

I’ve been through the experience of rebuilding my seat – and requisite habits and muscle memory – enough to know intrinsically that things *will* get better.    And already, I’m finding my “sweet spot” more quickly – almost automatically even – rather than requiring a full-body position re-org to get there.  However, I was convinced I had forgotten how to bend.  “We have to work on this!” I insisted to Christy, convinced that I had lost this basic skill.

Happily for me, Christy worked us through some serpentines that suggested the real issue was the fact that I wasn’t riding the bend, I wasn’t asking for it.   But when I concentrated and rode it, I was able to do a decent serpentine with a decent quality trot.

Mind you, here’s what was going on in my head as we went into the first loop:

Leg ON more trot now hold with abs HOLD ABS half halt no REALLY half halt hold onto the dang reins for the love of all that is good and holy *ELBOWS* thumbs closed, there you go, good girl ABS ABS FOREWARD for pete’s sake CORRECT TAP TAP TAP WITH WHIP okay, that’s forward, Good boy! now inside leg to outside rein come ON use that inside leg good good straighten a couple strides new inside leg now  FORWARD ABS hold that rein….Wait, what? What’s wrong? You forgot to breathe?  Okay then, breathe!

You see my problem.  It’s hard to keep all these balls in the air, because they aren’t yet habits.  Remember George Morris’ “hard easy habit beautiful” construct?  Well, I am firmly mired in “hard.”

Christy did spot – and fix – a key problem last night.  The bend to the right was easy, and acceptable.  The left? Not so much.  I am a bit stiffer in that hip,  but a technique she gave me really helped immensely – and immediately.   Christy directed me to imagine that I was pushing that left hip toward my right hand.  That did the trick.  By lifting and pushing that hip toward my hand, I was able to give a clear and correct aid, rather than just nudging hopefully (but inconsequentially) with my leg.  Can I just say that I love the fact that I have a trainer who is this picky, and can see these little things, and knows how to communicate the fix to me in a way that it actually sinks into my cluttered brain?

We did some work at the canter, and did produce some decent work.  Importantly, I’m feeling more balanced and able to influence the horse from my seat at the canter, riding that gait, in effect, more purposefully.   This means I’m going to have to start multitasking at the canter – and riding into the transition with more balance – and more contact.  This is next on the list of concurrent tasks to manage.  I’ll let you know how it goes!