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.

Feeling good.

A nice moment with Oliver

My farrier looked at Derby on Friday, and assured me that he wasn’t re-abscessing in his left hind.  He had some minor remaining bruising but said that he was fine to ride.  So, after a few days off due to my dithering and uncertainty, we tacked up and had an easy ride.  Saturday I asked him for a bit more,  getting a little resistance that I was able to overcome. And today, we did even more, and Derby was lovely.

I’m starting each ride with good walk work, concentrating on getting Derby into the bridle.  However, I’ve decided that the warm up routine that works best for him is this: forward walk (no real lateral work) followed by a lap or two of trotting on a loopy rein to during which he sneezes and clears his pipes, then on to good solid forward trot – and then the work can begin.  Lateral work at the walk is best done during walk breaks – which really aren’t “breaks” at all.

Anyway.  Today Derby was clearly feeling pretty good and we got some fantastic work done – he was really round, his back was up, and he was really moving.  Liz was hanging out, waiting for Cloud to dry after a bath, and she watched us, offering some feedback here and there and some nice compliments.  🙂

What was so nice about today is that I was really able to get Derby into the bridle, and once he was there, he felt so solid and responsive.  I was able to regulate his stride easily, and I didn’t have the issues bending him when I had that good connection that I do when the contact is tenuous.  He was also very forward, moving out very well and really covering the ground.  It felt simply marvelous.   We did shoulder-in both ways, and some decent leg yields too.  I was especially pleased because I hadn’t been feeling great prior to the ride – but needless to say my mood was elevated and I felt pretty good when I dismounted.

I wish I’d had a reservoir of energy today, because I just didn’t have it in me to ride Oliver, with whom I’ve been entrusted this weekend while Steph is away.  For fun, I took a lesson on him yesterday, and got a real workout in riding the horse forward into contact.  With Oliver, I’m trying to give him a longer rein, and then invite him to move forward into that contact, filling up the slack.  This is tough, because he doesn’t move forward readily, and he likes to go around with his head up.  Really up!  I was hoping to do some canter work with him, but my agenda quickly refocused –  first and foremost I wanted to get him to relax, and reach for the contact.

As you can see from the video clip below, we got there, but I literally had to manage almost every stride, putting leg on, on more, softening immediately to reward the correct behavior, and continually sending him forward and inviting him to fill up the the reins.  I want him to be the one pulling on the reins, not me.

It was fun to ride Oliver again – he’s got better gaits than Derby and someday is going to be a very fancy fellow indeed.  I’m going to bed early tonight, and hope to get another ride on him in tomorrow night, before my lesson on Derb.  My ride on Oliver yesterday gave me some ideas, and my ride on Derby today reinforced the feelings of gait quality and contact. I’d love to be able to replicate that feel on Oliver.

Mind Over Matter? Maybe?

I’m not sure why this is happening, but I’m riding better now than I have in a very long time, maybe ever.   And the fact that this is coming after the horse and I both had two weeks off is especially confounding. But it’s undeniable.  We’re better. The horse is forward, the contact is better, the gait quality is better, and – amazingly – I’m doing a pretty good job at sitting my transitions, and the transitions (especially upward to canter) are prompt and greatly improved.  To wit:

Two weeks ago:

Respectable trot, in an intro/training frame

Last night:

His face is nicely vertical, he's tracking up and his back is up. Much better. Best of all, Derby is offering this, and I'm taking it (instead of throwing the reins away and dumping him on his forehand.)

The canter work is even more significantly improved.

Two weeks ago:

This effort is probably described best as "trying not to fall off the damn horse."

Last night:

I'm so proud of us. Round, good contact, quality gait, and I'm sitting nice and tall. Go us!

I’m not sure why we’re suddenly producing better quality work – and to this degree.

– It has been cool and breezy, and a little wind under his tail might be propelling the Derbster forward.

– Along the same lines, I’m wearing larger spurs to better make my point, and Derby, to his credit, is getting good at saying “Yes, Ma’am!”

– We’re in a different bit and he is definitely taking stronger contact on it.

– I came home from the Dover clinic motivated and educated

– Christy is also similarly motivated and told me “It’s time to demand more…”

– The vet says I gotta do it.

I’m sure these are all contributing factors, though none explain my new found ability to sit my transitions.  I guess I’ll quit ruminating and just take it.

So tonight Derby really worked.  We started with the longing program prescribed by the vet, and then had a lesson about 45 minutes later. We took advantage of the empty arena to really encourage Derby to move out, both at the trot and canter.   Leg yields and trot quality were the focus of the first half of the lesson.  Christy had me ride the arena like a rectangle on the quarterlines, cutting straight across the short end and yielding out on each side.  As we went through the exercise, Derby got more and more connected, which really is no surprise, given that I was half halting him through every corner, and again as we started the yields.  Feeling the contact get stronger and his back come up up up was really cool.

For the canter work, the aim was to ride more forwardly and let Derby roll around the arena.  However, we were both starting to run out of gas toward the end.  We did get some nice quality work, though not as big and forward and rolling as I had hoped.   We’ll give that another shot tomorrow!

After the ride I made a big fuss out of Derby, plying him with carrots, cookies, peppermints and an alfalfa mash.  I think we’re friends again (he wasn’t thrilled when I saddled him up apres longing) and I’m looking forward to tomorrow night!

Channeling Robert Dover (or trying to, at least)

I have nine pages of notes and hours of video from the weekend’s clinic with Robert Dover, hosted by Wyngate Equestrian, and I really will try to synthesize all that info and share it with you.  For now, I’ll stick to just a couple key things I took away from the experience.

First and foremost,  Dover focuses on the basics.  He tested almost every rider’s connection with their horse, and proceeded with the lesson based upon what he observed during the exercise, no matter what level the horse and rider were at.  One rider, who was mounted on one of the most fabulous horses in for the clinic (and that is really saying something, folks, there were truly some world-class animals there, including one that had been shortlisted for the Pan Am Games) that was purportedly schooling all the FEI work wound up working on getting the horse through and into the bridle honestly!  It was an astounding lesson, from the standpoint that someone at that level could have such fundamental weaknesses.  And this rider wasn’t alone.  Another GP rider had similar issues with connection, and a third rider who was competing at fourth spent most of her lesson working on bend.

It was fascinating watching Dover work with these three in particular, because I really wasn’t expecting to see people with issues to which I can really relate.  The difference in the riders from the beginning to the end of their lessons was amazing, and one rider must have done extra homework, because her ride the following day was truly extraordinary, drawing applause from the auditors, myself included.

In addition to his emphasis on the basics, Dover also emphasized perfection. “Walk perfectly,” he said dozens of times, going on to say that if your horse wasn’t through and on the aids at the walk, it wouldn’t be through and on the aids anywhere else.    He required riders to follow his instructions precisely, and had them repeat the movement when it wasn’t up to his standards.    As Christy noted in her first recap of the clinic, every rider rose to his challenge.  In our chat about the clinic afterwards, Christy and I both noted that the charge to expect more of you, and your horse, was one that we would be taking back to Silver Fern.

Finally, the last big take away for me was around forwardness and responsiveness.  I *know* that you need your horse to be forward and attentive, willing to respond instantly to the subtle aids that make well-ridden dressage so beautiful. Dover emphasized the fact that how we ride trains our horses, and essentially, we have to ride them like we want to ride, and require them to respond.

As I said, I have a lot more to share about the clinic, but now I need to talk about today.

Derby’s abscess seems to have healed nicely, but he’s been short on his right hind (the abscess was in the left.) I had the vet out, and while she did support putting him on Adequan and said he would need to have his hocks done at some point, the issues I’m seeing are more about weakness and tightness in his SI region. She prescribed a course of forward, correct work.  Which means that between what I learned from Robert Dover and what my vet says the horse needs, I need to make some changes.

It’s been two weeks since I really rode, so I did a short lesson to get back into the swing of things.  I told Christy to take no prisoners, and my formerly sweet trainer turned into a demanding taskmaster.  But that’s what we needed, and we had a good ride  – despite his reluctance to use his back end and step under himself, I was able to get him to do both, with constant coaching from Christy.

Because the correct work is now an absolute imperative, I’m taking lessons each night this week, and on Saturday, and will probably repeat the same next week.  I need to channel Robert Dover and get the perfect work Derby and I badly need.

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.

Two firsts in one lesson.

We got some really nice work tonight.

We had such a fun ride tonight.  Going into my lesson, I mentioned to Christy that I wanted to work on “forward” first, because it’s dang hard to connect a horse that isn’t moving.    Once I had warmed Derby up and trotted a few laps, we cantered a few times – just a lap or so, because neither of us have an excess of fuel in the tank.  However, Derby still wasn’t in front of my leg, so Christy had us work on some exercises to get us there.

First, on a circle, she had me do trot-walk transitions, only walking two strides before picking up the trot again.  Initially, the transitions were mushy – indistinct and not prompt.  Christy had me remedy this by *requiring* a crisp, “trot NOW” transition.  Derby replied enthusiastically on our next attempt, stepping straight into a canter.

Not the prettiest moment in equitation, but I like how he's stepping up underneath himself.

Okay, so our first walk-canter transition was an accident, but it felt awesome.  I allowed Derby to roll for a minute, because an enthusiastic forward response is a very good answer.  The last thing I needed to do at that moment was to jerk him in the mouth and punish him.    From there, quickly tallied our second “first” of the evening.  Christy had us do trot-canter-trot-canter transitions, with just a few strides of each gait – and Derby responded with alacrity.  And after that, the overall quality of our work improved.

Best of all, we were able to get the transitions both ways. I still need to work myself into balance going right, but I’m able to get there, and able to generate good work that direction.

To wind the ride down and let the horse stretch (he’s been stuck in his stall for the last two days due to torrential rain and thunderstorms) we just trotted some laps – but I was asking for a big, reachy trot and also asking Derby to work over his back.  Building top line is still a top priority, and this is a good way to do it.  I was happy with his responsiveness and overall, it was a fantastic ride.  We need to keep him in front of my leg but we really are making progress.  He’s a good boy!

Puzzle pieces

He *can* stretch down and out.

Finally.  Finally finally finally.  We had a really decent ride today, following a nice effort yesterday.   Things are starting to come back together, and I’m relieved.

When we started picking at my position a couple weeks ago, one of the things I was struggling with was getting Derby to move forward beyond a sluggish trot.  Christy theorized that my closed hip angle was actually sending Derby “whoa” signals, even as I was asking for “go.”   As we worked on my position, Derby started moving out when the situation up on his back improved.  That was great but those moments were fleeting.

The good news is that things are definitely better.  Yesterday we had a very nice ride.  Derby was a lot more forward and I worked hard on staying balanced, especially as I circle to the right, since I’ve noticed that I tend to collapse to the right, causing Derby to lean inward.  I rode lots of patterns. paying attention to my balance, position and aids going left, and then maintaining those going to the right.   The quality of Derby’s trot and our balance through the turns improved.

Losgelassenheit

This long German dressage term doesn’t have an exact English translation.  It means looseness, but with suppleness, energy and throughness.  It’s hard to describe in words, but I see it now when I watch Christy ride Remy, or when she lets Liam stretch after they’ve been working.  The horses go forward with enthusiasm, but with balance.  They are on Christy’s aids, and work beautifully over their backs.  I want to do that.  And today, we came close.

With images of Christy’s recent beautiful rides on Remy fixed in my mind, I mounted up today, determined to build on my good ride yesterday.  Right off the bat, I had a really nice, swingy walk.  Derby was marching along with purpose and energy.  After walking around on the buckle, I  gathered up the reins and started to work on suppling.  We flexed left, flexed right and did some shallow serpentines. The contact improved, at least it felt like it did, so I decided to check.  Turning onto a long diagonal, I fed Derby some additional rein, and he stretched nicely.  I sponged the outside rein, and pushed with my inside seatbone.  He stretched a bit more.  This was a real improvement.

Circling right, I asked Derby to trot, and got a prompt response, and a decent trot. I repeated some of the suppling exercises we did at the walk.  The contact improved even more,  as did Derby’s trot.   Taking advantage of the much-improved and steady contact, I decided to work on adjustablity within the trot.  Heading into a turn on the short side, I half halted, and asked Derby to hold a smaller trot, and he did.  Turning onto the long side, I kept the contact, and increased my my post. Derby responded hugely, stepping out into a really solid, forward, ground-covering trot, pushing from behind.  I half halted into the next corner, and felt his back really come up.  Down the next long side, his trot increased in power.    For fun, we did some nice shoulder in, and Derby responded easily and willingly.

I was thrilled. Around we went, changing directions, getting quality and power both ways.  We repeated the shoulder in.  Derby’s back was up, and it felt great. so I fed him a bit more rein produce a stretch as we trotted.  I did dump him onto his forehand, but I sat up, half-halted, and we recovered.

This was, by far, the best ride I’ve had on Derby to date.  I think Christy really nailed it when she spotted the fact that my old position was blocking Derby’s forward gears.  I’m excited for my lesson tomorrow night to show the boss what we’ve found!