Upward spiral

He’s a good buddy.

I have to start today’s post with a little silly horse bragging.  Tuesday’s vet appointment was first thing, and there was a real chill in the air.  Between the crisp temperatures and the fact that everyone else had been turned out, Derby was a bit wound up.  So I put him in the outdoor arena to work off some steam before the vet showed up.  Work it out he did – running, bucking and farting – before finally having two good rolls in the sand. Then he went and grazed the clover and tufts of grass growing along the edges.  Out of the reach of the mower, and recently rejuvenated by some rain, the edges of the arena provided some good eatin’.

After 15 minutes or so, the vet rolled in.  As they were unloading their things, I went up to the gate and called Derby to me.  He picked up his head and sauntered across the area to me.  My vet’s assistant happens to be Derby’s old owner.  She was amazed that Derby – who is very food motivated – would leave grass when I called.   He’s such a good boy!

Now on to the vet visit.  The good news is that the scoping showed zero inflammation of the airway, and zero lesions.   But there was some bad news too.  Derby has started to aspirate food into his airway.  This is the very last thing I wanted to hear, because aspirating food into the trachea can lead to choke and pneumonia.  Scary stuff.

We talked about surgery, but in the meantime, because the matter appeared to be hay, the vet told me to soak his hay.   She also told me not to worry too much – the coughing he does clears the airway.  That explains why I’ve been experiencing more coughing lately.

I focused on using my inside leg to engage Derby’s hind legs, getting him to step up under himself and engage.

On Tuesday night, I rode after Derby had his evening feed.  It was a beautiful, cool night, and he felt great – a little coughing at the beginning of the ride, but then he was pretty quiet.   Last night was the same story.  The wet hay really seems to be helping!  Our hay has been very crumbly – the flakes almost fall apart.  This is due to the drought -the plants are short, dry and stunted.  So instead of having nice, long blades of grass and other plants, the hay has little scraggly bits.  And he must be sucking those into his airway.   So hopefully we’ll dodge a bullet by continuing to soak his hay!  That beats the socks off tie-forward surgery, which is big surgery (the horse is fully out, on his back) and carries no guarantees.

In our lessons this week, we’re focusing on two things – maintaining strong, forward gaits, and activating Derby’s hind legs.  As I’ve mentioned before, these are two historically weak areas for me.    On Tuesday, the focus was really on bend and getting those hind legs to step under.  On Wednesday, it was more of the same, but we added extra focus on gait quality.   I caught myself twisting in the saddle again on Tuesday, causing the horse to fall inward, and forcing me to refocus on my position.  Christy helped me through this by telling me not to worry about fixing my legs (which I was – my outside leg would creep forward, and my inside leg back – ugh) but instead had me focus on my seat and leading with my inside seatbone.  That was the solution to the problem.   We were able to spiral in and leg-yield out nicely.

We’re working on engagement at the canter. The nice moments are coming more frequently, but we’re not yet maintaining the “niceness” all the time.

The canter is still very much a work in progress. I’m looking forward to the day when I have the same influence over the canter as I do the trot.  Right now I have two canters – crappy and decent.   While “decent” is a start, it’s not “working.”  I’m still developing my seat at the canter, and at the same time, I’m starting to think about getting the horse to move more forwardly, soften and engage his hind end.  We have quite a way to go in this gait!

Last night’s theme was “decide to do it.”  I had mentioned to Christy that I had difficulty maintaining a big, forward trot on a circle with correct bend and engagement.  After putting us through our paces, Christy diagnosed that (again!) the issue was with the pilot, not the pony.

“Pretend Robert Dover is watching you,” she said, hearkening back to the clinic, in which we saw what happened when riders were asked to expect more of themselves, and their horses. “Decide how you’re going to ride and then do it.”   So, I did.  I closed my legs, and was fast with a thump of a heel or tickle with the whip if he started to stall out.  Christy was right – it was more about making a decision and following through.   We finished the ride with few laps of big, forward, connected trot after all the work on the circles, and Derbs felt great throughout.

All in all, despite the scary interlude with the airway issues, I feel like we’re managing to spiral a little upward (in addition to in and out, in and out.) 🙂

Clarifying lateral work basics

Beginning our work on a 20 m "square"

Tonight I wanted to work some more on improving my ability to activate Derby’s hind legs, and really get him to step under himself.  Christy devised a great exercise that helped me tremendously.   We started at the walk, on a 20 m “square.”  Instead of a circle, Christy had me ride straight lines, and then ride each turn like a deep corner.   This ensured I bent the horse, and straightened the horse, and bent again.    Then she had me add a couple steps of leg yield on my straight sides.  I was amazed that we were able to do this easily, and without a much insistence on my part. We repeated the pattern at the trot, and as we rode through it,  I could feel the contact and the gait improving.  It was a neat exercise that really helped me develop more feel about what a decent leg yield requires, and what it feels like.

Switching directions, however, things got a little sloppy in the corners.  Christy remedied this by having me fix my eyes on a spot on the wall, and ride toward it.  Then going into the corner, he had me turn my head, find a new spot, and ride to that.  This little trick cleaned up my corners in a hurry.  I started riding them deeper and getting more well organized.  Best of all, I felt a real improvement in my connection and the horse’s back end.  You can see from the picture below that he’s really using himself.    It was a great lesson and this exercise is one I”m going to use a lot!

Goal achieved. Derby is using himself well behind.

PS.  I put my small spurs back on tonight.  My lower leg is staying really quiet! Yay!!!

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!


Quality begets quality

It took some work but we got a canter with some energy. But it shouldn't take so much work.

I scampered out to the barn tonight, eager to ride.  Derbs seemed to be ready to go too, abandoning his hay and standing by his stall door as I fetched his tack and set out his boots and brushes.

We started as we always do, walking, and he came onto the bit nicely and was moving easily off my seat bones.  I moved him into a trot, and rode in two point practicing some of my new skills from last night while he cleared his pipes.  Once we were ready to go, I asked him to move out as we were tracking left, and I loved the response I got when I closed my calves on his barrel and increased the elevation of my post.  He surged forward at first asking.  After a couple laps I asked for the canter and he again responded promptly, but then dropped to a trot before I asked for the downward transition.  We reorganized and cantered again.  This time I paid attention to my postion, keeping my hips open and swinging.   This time Derby held the canter until I asked for the downward transition.

I switched direction, starting again with trot work, and paying attention to bend, as we were now going right, and I’m continuing to have some issues this direction.  To try to get through this rough patch, I’m really trying to be as deliberate – and correct – as possible going right.   We did some big trot/ little trot, and then I asked Derbs to move out, and got another nice response.  However, when I moved into doing some serpentines, my energy started to peter out.

At that point I noticed that Christy was wrapping up her lesson, and her next one was running a bit late.  I asked her if she could give me a few minutes coaching, and she said sure, since my lesson last night had been been a bit short.

We started on a 20 meter circle, and Christy started to fix our trot, insisting first on better quality.  At this point, we were really lacking energy, and I’ve been struggling with maintaining forward gears when we’re doing something other than blasting down the long side.

She reminded me to hold my outside rein, get busy with my inside leg, and soften the inside rein to encourage bend, while also insisting on more, more, more forward.  She had us spiral in and leg yield out.  We finally put it together, and then I heard “Sit sit ask.”  I did as she she commanded, and while the transition was ugly, at least I got the right lead, and we found some solid energy.    We transitioned down, and did it all again.

I was pretty happy with the canter quality – with Christy’s coaching, I was able to really engage Derby’s inside hind.

It was a great ride and the fifteen minutes of torture coaching was invaluable.

There’s always something

A nice moment. We're working a small stretch, he's staying uphill, and that inside hind is engaged.

Christy and I had an interesting moment tonight, as I was working on developing and keeping Derby really engaged on a circle.  She started talking about softening my aids, specifically my spur.  Huh?  I wasn’t spurring and said so.

Diplomatic silence from the middle of the ring, accompanied by a raised eyebrow.


Well, God love her for having a high enough opinion of my riding to assume that I am in full control of my extremities.  Sorry to disappoint, Christy.  I’m not.   We stopped what we were doing and zeroed in on my leg.  It turns out that I’ve been egging Derbs on with my spur almost constantly, when I was happily under the illusion that I was keeping my aids quiet and deliberate.

Um. Awesome.

Looking at the videos, I cringe. I’ve got my spurs in Derby’s side more often than not.   Sure, they’re rounded, but they still don’t feel good.   The last thing I want to do is make him dead to my aids, and it sure looks like I’m on my way to desensitizing him to my spur. Yikes.  I’m putting the Tom Thumbs back on.  Developing a steady leg capable of delivering ONLY deliberate aids is now job one.

The posting-with-too-much-weight-on-my-foot problem still persists, and it’s contributing significantly to the unsteadiness in my lower leg.  It’s not reasonable for me to think that this issue would have been fixed a scant week since I started tipping my butt up into two point, letting my stirrups rattle on my feet as I hold my weight with my thighs, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

My review of tonight’s ride did reveal a couple bright spots.  For the most part, my posture has really improved.  I’m keeping my hip angles open, and doing so is now coming more easily.  I don’t need to constantly catch and correct myself, at least, not to the degree I did even a week ago.  That’s a step forward.

This sort of moment gives me hope, He's really moving, he's uphill, I'm sitting straight and am keeping it together.

In other good news, Derbs is over the muscle soreness.  He was moving out well and evenly tonight.  We cantered on a circle both ways,  and the quality of the canter was good – he held the leads and was stepping under himself – so clearly, the soreness is abating.  Canter transitions on the circle are at the top of our homework list – they’re great work for his hind end, and require me to get our collective ducks in a row – forward, contact, bend, sit sit ask – and give me the time I still need to organize everything.

So, overall, a good night.  Problems persist, but that is no surprise.  There will always be something to work on!

Four leaf clover

Good news, we're not broken, nor have we taken leave of our senses

I squeezed another lesson into Christy’s schedule to deal with the issues that cropped up on Monday night.  I’m happy to report that we had a nice ride, Derbs thought about looking at nothing once but we dealt with it, but that was it.

I suspect two issues contributed to my right-lead difficulties on Monday.  First, I need to do a better job of producing good bend.  I’m simply not asking for it.  I need to practice generating bend whilst maintaining my new-and-improved position – which is kind of hard for me – Christy noted that I was letting my knees creep up, effectively closing my hip angle.  Hmm.  No wonder my forward gears were petering out.  Christy observed that Derby is a ‘seat ride’ and is very responsive to little things – such as when I close my hip.  On the up side, this does give me instant feedback, so I am alerted that there’s something I need to fix.

The other issue is actually horse-related.  I’ve really upped my riding recently, and Derbs is working harder.  He was getting tired on Monday night. I need to build his fitness, and respect the fact that as I up the ante, I need to work him within that context.    We need to get those sadde pads wet.

For last night’s lesson, Christy had me ride a big four-leaf clover.  It was an ideal exercise to practice bending one direction, especially for where I’m at, because it includes moments of straightening which I needed to reorganize.  To ride the clover leaf, I essentially rode a loop in each corner.  So to start, you’d ride from A to C, turning right at C, and then turning right again at B, bisecting the arena and riding straight to E, turning right and doing a loop in that corner, turning right again at C, riding straight to A, turning right at A, doing a loop, turning right at E, riding straight to B, turning right … you get the idea.  It rides nicely and affords lots of bend/straighten/bend practice.   Rinse and repeat going the other direction.

One other thing came to the fore last night – I’ve been letting Derby sucker me into a less good-quality trot.  Christy got us back on track last night, telling me to ride like I was doing a lengthening.  “Now that’s your trot!” she exclaimed as we powered down the long side.  My challenge here is to keep my knees down and hips open, to guard against losing that forward impulsion.


Wrong lead? Nah! It’s counter canter!

Counter canter! Yeah! That's what we're doing! Counter canter!

Well, tonight’s ride only went partially as planned.  I was looking forward to my lesson, and showing Christy what I’ve been working on for the last few days.  We did earn some nice kudos – the left lead canter was really good – we had a decent transition, and I was able to show Christy how I’m getting better at really riding the gait – keeping the horse forward, getting him to step out and under himself, and holding the contact and getting him to move forward into it.   We got a gold star on our homework for that chapter, but we turned around and flunked the next one.

The weirdness started when we switched direction.  I had been getting some nice work this direction recently and felt that I was making real progress on the canter depart … but tonight wasn’t the night.  I was doing something new and strange – we couldn’t pick up the right lead to save our souls.


Okay, we did get it a couple times, including an unscheduled walk-canter depart (seriously, where’s the fruitbat?) but more often then not, I was putting him onto the wrong lead with alarming consistency.

We had some decent moments. I'm pretty happy with this canter attempt.

We worked at it, and revisited bending, and Derby grew more and more resistant on the right rein.  I knew then that somewhere, something was wrong with how I was riding, and I got confirmation of that fact when Derby started to resist naughtily, spooking at a corner and refusing to to bend.  I put him on a small circle, and doubled back, inching him back towards the corner – but I was getting tired and didn’t have the strength to really kick him over.  Then he tried to pull some of the same crap on the long side.  I smacked him with the whip, sent him forward, and we did some small 10M figure 8’s at the other end of the arena, and then headed for the end where he had spooked, bending on a serpentine.  No avail, he did it again.  I turned him in tight circles, keeping his feet moving, and was furious with myself and I’ll admit it, with him.  At this point, I was almost exhausted, so after he walked and halted nicely I called it a day.   However, ideally, that wasn’t the right time to end.  I have squeezed myself into Christy’s schedule tomrrow night, and we will revisit these issues!

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!

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!

Related reading: http://www.balancedrider.com/blog/2011/07/11070601.htm

Humpty Dumpty Learns to Ride

Some nice trot work with Oliver

I was channeling Humpty Dumpty last night during my lesson on Oliver, and Christy had to work hard to put me back together again. But she got the job done, and Oliver produced some very nice moments, stretching into contact while almost tracking up, and starting to work over his back.

A key contributing factor to my issues last night was the saddle.  Just for fun, I rode in a Stubben Romanus – an old one.  It’s the opposite of the saddle I’m used to (a Wintec Isabell). Instead of a deep seat covered in grippy suede, this old Romanus was slick leather, with a much shallower seat.  And instead of air-filled panels, the Romanus panels feel like they’re foam-lined and filled with wool flocking.  They’re soft, and solid, and lack the shock-absorbing quality of the Isabell.

Christy’s new saddle is also wool-flocked, and she says she can feel a lot more movement in it than in her old Isabell.  I tease Christy about being the Princess and the Pea – she feels so much more than I do in the saddle.  I think she could read Braille with her butt, frankly.  The same cannot be said of me, but riding Oliver – who I’m getting to know fairly well – in the Romanus was an entirely different experience that my usual ride.  All of a sudden, I was being bounced out of the saddle at the trot.  And while Oliver has nice, solid gaits, he doesn’t produce a lot of suspension. (Yet!)  His trot is pretty flat.  I wasn’t prepared for this feeling and had to spend some time finding my balance.

Finally – with constant adjustments and encouragements coming from Christy – I started to get it together, and regained some semblance of independent hands which had left me entirely at the beginning of the ride.  Humpty Dumpty was patched up.

Something else that helped me get it together was asking Oliver to move forward.  This helped me in two ways.  First, once I got him going forward – and I was keeping him there – his rhythm improved – a lot.  If I let him go at his own pace, he speeds up, then slows down, and then spurts forward again.  Keeping him going forward is easier to ride because it cuts down on the variability in speed – and that variability makes it hard to stay balanced.  Secondly, the more forward, proper working trot is easier to ride from a balance standpoint. It’s easier to ride when you can use the momentum of the horse’s gaits in your favor.

Once I started to resemble someone with a bit of training rather than a sack of potatoes, Christy had me work on inviting Oliver to really stretch into contact, something that has been on my to-do list for a while, but I’ve not made much progress in this area.  She quickly diagnosed the problem – I’ve not been giving enough with my hands.

We’ve discussed “giving hands” before, which is another way to describe following contact, which allows the horse to stretch forward, and can also reward the horse with a decrease in rein pressure for the correct behavior.   I commented that Oliver’s unsteadiness in the bridle made it harder for me to give at the right time.
“And that’s why it’s even more important!” was Christy’s response. And she’s right, of course.  Oliver is new to dressage, and prior to Steph’s purchasing him, he was ridden in  a leverage bit with a tie down. He’ll never learn to go correctly into contact if he doesn’t get good guidance from the person on his back.  I redoubled my efforts, trying to keep my hands quiet and the contact steady.  Christy reminded me to activate my inside leg, using the spur when necessary to enage Oliver’s inside hind.

“Ride the back end, and leave the front end alone,” Christy suggested.  I envisioned side reins, and concentrated on simply holding steady contact on the reins – not messing around with softening or opening or asking for give.  I focused solely on keeping the contact quiet and holding on to the outside rein, and got busy with my leg aids.

The improvement was almost immediate.  I turned my heel inward, applied a little spur pressure, Oliver stepped neatly aside with his hind leg and his neck lengthened.

“Give give give give GIVE!” Christy commanded. “Again!”   We repeated the exercise, and I finally reacted quickly enough to get a nice stretch into contact for a few strides, after which I stopped riding, whereupon he hollowed his back and popped his head up.  You really do need to ride every stride.  We repeated the process several times, going each way.  At the end of the ride, we were both sweaty and puffing.

Oliver is figuring this out – and it gets easier as the horse develops strength and self-carriage. Oliver is just beginning to develop the new muscles necessary to carry himself correctly.   It’s fun and challenging to work through these moments with him, and he’s such a pleasant horse to work with.  It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him develop!