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.

Argh.

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!

Tearing myself away ….

Just when things were getting really good, I have to take a (very) short break from riding.  Short, as in two days.  And really, I’m only “losing” one day, since Derbs gets his fall shots and dentistry on Monday, and would have the day off due to the vet work, whether or not I was in town.   That said, the day is dawning sunny, and promises to be warm (for November.) It would be an awesome day to ride, but I’m on the way to the airport this morning.

While I don’t want to give the impression that all of my problems are solved – far far from it! – it has been a gratifying week.   The work we did in my lesson (see “Tightening the Screws“) awakened me to the fact that I have been letting Derby steal rein – when I’m not just flat out throwing the reins at him – and I was putting him on his forehand.  Since that lesson, I can feel when this is happening, and while I still need a few strides to organize, think, take hold, half halt and close legs and engage core and hold contact and go now, horse! go! …. the good news is that I can get remedy the situation.

Our last couple rides have been really nice.  On Friday, the highlight was a nice, relaxed, rolling canter that felt balanced, and that I was able to influence.  Yesterday, the highlight was more canter work – transitions on a 20m c ircle.  We had a couple crap transitions that I knew were my fault, not Derby’s.  So I put him on a circle, got a nice, balanced trot going, and then rode some transitions.  As long as we stayed organized, they felt effortless.   Clearly, I need to work on managing and maintaining quality and balance through and between gaits – obviously, since this is really kind of a key component to a successful test.  I’m really happy with the quality of the gaits recently.   My rides this week have been really fun – it’s tough to get on a plane to leave, even if it is just a short trip.

Tightening the screws

Christy has figured out an important fix to my position, and we’re working on developing my muscle memory for keeping my core really engaged, my legs softly back, my calves gently against the horse, my knees relaxed, my hips angles open and swinging and my leg long and draping.   I’m definitely in the “hard’ phase of the “Hard, Easy, Habit, Beautiful” progression described by George Morris. It’s worth it, though.  When I do manage to balance myself and get my knees off the saddle blocks, Derby’s gaits improve dramatically.

We might have been happy with this moment a month ago, but not now.

Tonight Christy upped the ante on me a bit, asking me to hold my contact and really push the horse into the bridle from behind, creating more uphill movement.  In doing this she took dead aim at a bad habit of mine – I tend to give the reins when the horse pulls into contact, and I wind up dumping him on his forehand.

Here’s a stellar example:  You can see clearly here how I’ve totally pushed my shoulders forward and straightened my arms, so even though my fingers are closed, I’ve given him a ton of rein.  Derby has eagerly accepted, and has gone onto his forehand.

So while the trot quality is nice and the contact is solid, I’m failing miserably here to give Derbs the support he’s seeking, and I’m losing the opportunity to gather power an energy when I give away the reins like this.

Correcting ourselves and getting the horse off his forehand

At this point, Christy was most likely howling “Hold your reins! PIN YOUR ELBOWS TO YOUR SIDE!”     I scrambled to put things back together.  First, I half-halted,  bringing my elbows back to where they belonged as I rebalanced the tolerant creature beneath me.   I sat myself up straighter, and opened my hip angles, and started to lengthen my legs again by dropping my knees.  You can see how the changes I made in about 3 strides have improved Derby’s carriage.

Once I had fixed the big issues, I was able to ask Derby to move forward, while (this time!) holding the dang contact. I’m still struggling with staying straight (and keeping the hip angles open) as you can see, but overall, the balance was much better and I finally, finally, finally got him fully connected, producing the nice moment you see at the very top of this post.

It’s the most amazing feeling, and gives me hope for our future in the ring!

Walk Perfectly.

Even though Emily Wagner has turned her head to talk to her coach, Wake Up is still round, on the bit and pushing powerfully from behind. This is an enviable walk.

Man plans, God laughs, and horses are in cahoots.  After our breakthrough rides last week, it appears that Derby might be re-abscessing in his left hind.  He’s sound walking but he’s really protecting that foot when trotting.  I’ve recommenced soaking and wrapping.   This hiccup is a real disappointment, but things happen for a reason. The horse needs to keep moving.  So we’re walking.

This is a perfect opportunity for me to practice something I heard Robert Dover say over and over and over again in the clinic.  “Walk perfectly,” he insisted, adding, “Everything is related back to walking well. You have to get the basics of being correct in the bridle.  You have to be on the aids at the walk in order to be on the aids everywhere else.”

Christy often asks me “Is this the walk that has a canter in it?” and often my answer is no.  Most of the time, frankly, I phone in walking.  And that’s a bad habit.  I’m letting the horse relax fully when walking, often dropping the reins.

Dover took the idea of the-walk-that-has-a-canter-in-it further, describing collected walk as being a state in which anything – any gait, any movement – is possible.  He spoke frequently about how collection is additive – you add energy, rather than taking it away.   While collection is absolutely months and months away for Derby and me, building energy isn’t.  Listening to Robert, I became more fully aware of how important creating that energy is.  Without forward energy, you don’t have contact, engagement and roundness.  Without forward energy, you don’t have dressage. Period.

So I decided to spend this time when we’re in walk only mode working on walking perfectly.

As I warmed up last night, I made a point (as I always do) to find my seatbones, and balance myself from there.  I know I”m doing it right when Derby abandons his shuffle and strides out properly. After I found that moment, I next asked him to stretch into a free walk.  It didn’t happen, due to the fact that I had no real contact.  I regrouped, balancing myself, picking up contact, encouraging the horse to stay forward, and then getting a little stretch.  Just a little. 

Hmmm.

I decided to try an exercise Christy had me do with Maddie that helped me get the mare onto the bit.  Walking, I flexed Derby left, and then right, from my seat, holding the reins quietly.  This was better but still not great.

Hmmm.

While I thought I stood up in my stirrups, practicing balancing myself standing straight up.  Derby plodded on, I held myself in balance standing with loop in the rein, and thought and thought.

As we walked around the arena, I could feel Derby’s walk changing.  His back started to swing, he was pushing from his back end, and I could feel his stride really lengthening.  This was a niiice walk.  Really nice.

Gently, breathlessly, I sat back into the saddle.  Derby’s stride immediately shortened, losing energy.  Okay, I had an idea what was causing this – my hip angle.  I had worked on this before.  Taking my legs off the horse, I felt my seatbones. Keeping my legs off the horse, I followed his motion, and the stride started to lengthen.  All right.  Progress. I picked up the reins, closed my legs …. and lost the energy again.

Dang. I decided to seek professional help.  After I dismounted, I told Christy that I wanted lessons after all, and that we were going to work on the walk.  

So tonight we did just that.  I told Christy all about last night.  She reminded me of one key thing I had forgotten to do – to emphasize keeping my hip angle open while in the saddle.  How to achieve this?  We repeated an exercise she had me do previously – after finding my seatbones, she has me lengthen from the hip, being sure to unclench my knees, and with my calves softly against the horse.  This is Christy’s way of getting me – sore knees, tight hips, weak ankles and toes that want to point straight out to the sides – to relax and soften my legs so they can drape around the horse.  

From there, she reminded me to open my hip angle, by making a point of sitting tall, lifting my chest.  It felt like I was leaning way, way too far back.  But no, despite the exaggerated feel, Christy assured me I was sitting straight.

The change underneath me was instant and significant.  With my hip angles open, Derby strode forward nicely.   This was progress.  Christy had me pick up contact and close my legs, encouraging him to go even more forward.  He trotted off (though his back was up and it felt pretty nice!) but that wasn’t the result we we intended.  Christy had spotted the problem, however.  In that moment, I hunched my shoulders forward (I’m told) which totally weakened my position, causing me to lean my body forward.  We tried it again, this time with emphasis on holding the reins (like side reins, Christy suggested) and keeping my shoulders still and back.

At that point, I had an ah-ha moment.  Derby was striding forward and pulling strongly into the contact.  This is what I had been seeking!  This was the nice, connected walk I had admired in others.  This was the sort of walk that had a canter in it.  Or a halt.  Or, for that matter, anything.

I worked on developing that feel and memory during my lesson.  I lost the nice walk, and regained it, over and over.  Tomorrow night I hope we’ll add some lateral work.  We made some real progress tonight.

Ask and you’ll receive

Nice contact, going right, in a bigger gait.

We’ve been working on establishing a better quality “default” working trot – specifically, tracking up and staying in front of my leg.  And overall, we’re doing much better work, and I’m able to generate good quality gaits  pretty much from the get-go.  There are two keys to our improvements – my staying balanced on the horse, and insisting upon a good forward response when I ask nicely.  Tonight a few other things happened – as the quality of the trot improved, I could feel Derby’s back come up nicely, and the contact really improved.  And watching the video after the ride, I can see that his mouth is a bit quieter and he’s a lot steadier in the bridle too. Best of all, however, I could feel Derby really engaging his hind and pushing forward.  That feeling of power is amazing.

Speaking of the video, here it is.  We were working on a few things – maintaining the quality of the gait, while also keeping Derby (and me) balanced and not falling inward – at one point you’ll hear Christy say “shift out” which means she wants me to get some weight into my outside stirrup and push the horse outward.  And late in the video you hear me say “Boosters!” – it’s at that point I felt Derby finally start to push.

We drilled big trot / little trot and then did some canter work that wasn’t fabulous.   I need to work on staying balanced in the transitions, and also reinforcing immediacy with Derby.  This will come.

LIttle trot. His back is up and he's holding the contact nicely.

Now I have something else to confess.  Last night I rode Tucker, the very fancy, very small (15 h) Quarter Horse.  Tuck has a ton of training and is light and responsive to his rider’s shifts in weight, balance and posture, and aids.  He was the perfect mirror for me last night, and the reflection wasn’t pretty.  It took me a while to figure out how to ride him – his short legs move a lot faster than Derby’s, and the tempo of his trot is a lot faster.  At first it made me laugh but within a few minutes, I apologized to Tuck for laughing at him, and asked him to please stop humbling me.  I want to do a few more rides on him because he forces me to stay very quiet – and makes it clear when I’m not.