Working on the Weekend

Canter two point. We're both working.

Canter two point. We’re both working.

Preview Changes

After a week out of town for work, during which I was totally overbooked and thus pretty much sedentary, I was eager to get back in the saddle and continue the work we started last week.

We didn’t do anything earth shattering.  I am still struggling to maintain the new position – the progression according to George Morris is “Hard, Easy, Habit, Beautiful” and needless to say, I’m stuck in “Hard.”  So I’m working in two point for some of each ride to help develop a good base of support and stronger lower leg. We’re also trying to put the canter back together, an I’m finding it hard to sit the canter and really plug into the saddle, probably due to the oft-mentioned tightness in my hips.   So I’m hopping up into two point to help us both out.

Yes! Activating the inside hind, and even getting him to lift his front end a bit.

Yes! Activating the inside hind, and even getting him to lift his front end a bit.

Keeping Derby pushing from behind and really using his inside hind is a real priority for me right now. So I worked on shoulder fore, a wee bit of shoulder in, and some leg-yield here and there.   We’re back into lessons full bore starting tomorrow night, so hopefully, I’ll soon have more progress to report!

Back to work

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 10.55.36 PM

We are officially back to work.  I don’t have any travel for the next month, and, well there are some schooling shows coming up …. but I digress.  We’re back to work, and Christy is approving – our work is consistently more correct, and it’s my fervent hope that we’ll see the results in the form of some more muscle on that skinny neck.

I added a lesson, so we worked with Christy four times this week – we have to keep up this momentum. After our nice ride on Monday, I got a little over-motivated and rode Tucker before my ride on Derbs, after a killer Pilates session.  Needless to say, I was almost out of gas by the time my lesson rolled around, but we had a few nice moments before I pooped out.  Then on Wednesday, it was Derby’s turn – the horses were inside due to pouring rain and wind, and after a few more strenuous rides, standing around in his stall did him no favors.  He felt blah and was really underpowered in his hind end, so we worked on some stretchy trot, and then rode the intro tests for variety.

Two point.  Ow ow ow.

Two point. Ow ow ow.

Today we were both back on form for the most part, so we worked on some canter – which at the outset is going to be focused on conditioning and really getting Derby to move out at the trot.  He still wants to duck behind my leg , which we need to fix.   We’ll be addressing

But we’re putting things together.  The pieces feel like they’re starting to come together.  I’m trying not to be too impatient, so Derby will get a day off tomorrow, and I’ll ride Tuck to keep myself going.



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.) 🙂

The “Maserati”

Starting to get some real throughness.

Back when I was riding Maddie, I actually got to the point where I was starting to really ride correctly, developing real connection and that powerful closed loop of energy you get when your horse is really pushing with its back legs, is on the bit and working over its back and you’re holding correct contact.  I remember how it felt the first time on Maddie – when that big, 16.3 hand mare suddenly felt like she grew a finely tuned sports suspension.   All the parts of the horse are working in unison.  There are no trailing hindquarters or popping shoulders.  The horse is through.  Its back is up, it’s on your aids and connected and paying attention. It’s a wonderful feeling of power married with pinpoint control.

I’m starting get that feeling of throughness with Derby, too.  Our work has really improved recently – due in large part to our newfound forwardness.  I’ve been able to generate and keep the “Maserati” feeling at the trot during my last few rides.  It’s so much more than roundness.  It’s amazing.

Bad and naughty pony!


I’ve also been focusing on maintaining my forward gears.  We now have a nice medium walk that is our default.  No more shuffling.  The trot is also completely respectable.  I still need to do more work in the canter, however.  And I had to remind him tonight, which elicited the buck you see above.

Happily, I stayed on, and even more happily, wasn’t even phased.  After the bucking incident, we had a better ride and more forward canter.  At one point I even got him to lengthen a bit, and could feel the difference.  I have a lot to do in the canter – developing roundness and adjustability for starters – but I feel like we’re making progress.  I’m actually influencing the gait.

I’ve added a couple more lessons to this week’s usual remit.  We have some momentum and I really want to keep the pedal to the metal right now.

Finally forward (update + video)

A better canter is easier to sit on correctly. My posture looks much better.

Today temperatures got back up into the 90’s, and Derbs was sweating just standing in his stall.  Because he’s often at his laziest on hot days, I was curious to see if last night’s focus on ‘forward’ would translate to tonight’s ride.

It did! Right off the back Derby stepped into a good trot, and he didn’t require any sharp reminders with the whip.  I didn’t have to do any Pony Club booting either. We had a really nice ride.  I was thrilled.  Importantly, I think I can perserve these forward gears.

I was motivated by watching some recent videos and not being happy with how we looked.  When Derby is behind my leg, I have to work hard, which is totally exhausting, and it’s terrible for my posture. When I’m trying to push him forward, I essentially push with my whole body – tipping forward and closing my hips, which puts the brakes on Derby’s forward gears.

The quality of his gaits improved across the board.  We have a legtimate, swingy medium walk, a very nice free walk stretching into contact, and a rhythmic canter.  When he’s behind my leg, his canter gets lateral. It’s awful. Tonight, it was pretty nice.

I’m hoping to work another lesson in tomorrow. I want to keep this momentum going.


Here’s a clip of our canter work.  I was thinking about last night’s ride again this morning, and forgot to add one more observation – that a more forward horse is in steadier contact.  Anyway, in this clip I’m starting to influence the canter here and there, getting him to lengthen stride and round (albeit sporadically, but it’s a start!)

Incremental improvements

Better posture.

While the new seatbones and leg position changes aren’t yet habit (I repeat the mantra “Lengthen lengthen,” going into each bend and corner) it’s already helping improve my position, because my core in more engaged.  Two days on from the discoveries about my issues and the subsequent fixes, my seat at the canter has improved – I’m sitting much straighter.   I’d still like to see myself elevate my ribcage more, and my hands are creeping back into my lap (I don’t have a straight line from elbows to hands to bit) but I can see improvement from earlier this week, which I’ll take.

I have to do a lot more work at the canter – and trot/canter transitions – but we’re heading in the right direction.

Working some stretch

Overall, my balance and contact is improving day by day, as well.  Derby and I are going around much more consistently, and I’m mixing in bits of stretchy trot here and there to test my contact (and work on that movement too, of course.)

Better core engagement is also helping in the w/t and t/w transitions.  While my downwards are getting pretty reliable, keeping Derby round and on the bit in the upwards can still be spotty.

I’m up early this morning watching the first day of team dressage at the Olympics, and hope I have enough gas in the tank for a good ride tonight.  I petered out after about 40 minutes – which included a long warm up.  From a cardio standpoint I’m doing fine, but I’m still struggling with muscle endurance.   I’m paying attention to my diet (plenty of protein, and healthy carbs before I ride) but suspect that I’m just in need of more wet saddle pads.   The problem is most evident after canter work, which tells me something.

Olympics watching note: 

If you would prefer to watch dressage with some good commentary, or if you can’t access NBC’s live streams on their web site, here’s how you can watch the rest of the Olympics by accessing the BBC’s live feed: Go to and spend $7.50 for one month of VPN access. This will allow you to get around the fact that the BBC Olympic streaming is blocked for the US. Follow set up instructions and be sure to select a European server instead of a US server. The set up is very easy. Just follow the instructions. Once connected to the net via VPN Authority, you can go straight to the site, where you can access their Olympic stream.


It’s not a fluke

My two rides over the weekend were both really nice.  We’re riding in the outdoor every moment possible – the footing is better and it shows in the horses’ gaits.  The footing is also a bit deeper – similar to what we see at shows – and provides some extra conditioning too.
I was disappointed when Derby came up back sore on Thursday, but I wasn’t entirely surprised.  I’ve been working him more over his back in the last week than I have in a long time, and while I’m not killing him with work by any stretch of the imagination, he is working differently.  So on Thursday we simply longed, and Friday Derby had the day off.  Saturday found him much improved, and we had a nice ride in which I was able to generate and hold correct roundness and connection almost from the beginning, and I got it in the canter, too.  I am noticing that Derby is starting to try to lean a bit on my hands, but that’s corrected pretty simply by sitting up and applying leg.

On Sunday, we rode late in the day, after coming home from watching Christy show. It was cool and breezy, and an afternoon rain shower had dampened the footing outside just enough to hold off the dust.  We got going and Derbs felt good but when I asked him to move out at the trot, I got an ‘eh’ response.   So I gave him a smack with the whip – and got a little buck and then canter.  While I didn’t love the buck response, forward was the right answer, so I let him canter.  Derby found the energy he thought he lacked previously, and we did a lap going forwardly, and then on the circle I asked him to round and come into my hands – and he did.  Actually influencing the canter is still so new to me, I can’t believe I can do it! It’s not a fluke after all. 🙂

So work starts again with Monday’s lesson, and we’re looking at getting out to a show mid-August.  Stay tuned!


This is a canter we can work with!

Finally! We’re developing roundness at the canter. Yay!

I’ve really been busting my hump lately, and tonight we took another couple steps forward.  I was able to replicate the fleeting roundness at the canter I felt over the weekend, and I even held it together.   A round canter feels ENTIRELY different.  It is dreamy!  So that’s what the fuss is all about.  I get it! 🙂  And I was thrilled when Christy said “Now this is a canter we can work with,” and then started talking about getting out at Training.  This year.


Much remains to be done.  Everything needs to be smoother, more balanced, and more consistent. But there were a few other high points this evening.

Round downward canter-trot transition

Starting the transition downward

Two strides later – no upflung head!  We stay round, steady, forward and quiet.

Starting to push the working trot out:

Oh! And stretchy trot. Forgot to mention we did that too! Woot!

So, this was an awesome ride. One of my best ever. And there was a secret ingredient.  Forward.  The horses were in all day today, and Derbs was fresh.  Having ready access to forward gears made everything work better.  I have to continue developing (and riding and encouraging and reinforcing and rewarding) forward thinking behavior from the Derbster.

Here’s a look at some video from late in the ride.  I was really running out of gas and it shows.  However, we still got some nice moments.  It’s a definite improvement.


About six months ago, after riding Derby for me while I was away, Christy commented to me that he “felt just like Jag.”   We train our horses every time we ride, and it stands to reason that they quickly reflect how they’re ridden in how they go.  In this case, Christy was saying (among other things) that Derby wasn’t terribly responsive to aids, because I wasn’t requiring immediate, crisp responses.

I’ve ridden enough different horses to know what she’s talking about.  Generally speaking, horses that Christy has trained (like Liam and Maddie) are unbelievably fun to ride – they are so light and so responsive that that it almost feels like they’re reading your mind.  They respond immediately to the the most gentle of aids.

On the other end of the spectrum are wily lesson horses and horses ridden by beginners.  These horses are good at defending themselves against inconsistent riding, unsteady hands and other rider errors that are uncomfortable for the horse.  They aren’t terribly fun horses to ride.  You have to really work hard to get them to relax and work correctly. In my case, I dulled Derby’s responsiveness and dialed back his forwardness.  I’ve been working on improving my riding – and what upping my expectations of him.

Today we had a fun ride.  Christy and I met at the barn in the morning, to ride before going to Lamplight to watch the freestyles.   It wasn’t terribly hot, so we took advantage of the weather and rode outside.   Keeping my lessons in mind, I focused on keeping Derby on the bit, and holding the contact in order to define clearly where I wanted him to go.  Over all, he made me work here and there but it was a pretty decent ride.  We rode pieces of patterns and transitions, and I was getting nice work and good responses.  We also had some good canter work, doing 20 M circles and then laps.  And during one of those canters, I decided to apply what I’ve been doing in the trot – closing my fingers and closing my legs to hold the contact and encourage the horse forward.  And for a moment – a fleeting moment, he rounded and his back came up.  And that fleeting moment, felt great.   I’ve not been working much at all on the canter, and it was neat to influence the gait.

We cooled out a bit, and then I took Derbs in to untack.  I bent down to remove my spurs before taking him to the wash rack … and found that I’d forgotten to put them on!   His responsiveness is absolutely improving.  That was a nice ride, especially without the added emphasis of spurs.

Christy is going to get the chance to get on Derby again in September.  I hope she can feel an improvement in him this time around!

Separately, the show was interesting.  We watched a number of rides, from First through Fourth, and then a couple FEI freestyles.   As is always the case with a rated show, everywhere you look you see serious equine eye candy.  But only a scant handful of rides showed real connection and throughness.  We saw a lot of leg movers, gaping mouths, tense backs and lateral walks (a serious fault.)  Sure, when you’re watching, you have no idea of the extenuating circumstances the riders are dealing with when they go down the centerline.  I get it – a lot of horses (Derby included) are far different at shows then they are at home.  Still, we saw a lot of upper level and pro rides, and we could see the problems that stem from not really having the horse through.  Tempis didn’t have jump, extensions didn’t have reach and thrust.  Obviously, I’m light years from riding these movements, and I’m not saying this to impugn the riders I saw today.   But I did come away from the show with a new appreciation for how important connection and throughness are for a good ride.

You get what you ask for…and what you accept

We worked on bend tonight, and made some progress.

I’m finally getting my strength back to the point where I can start worrying about other things than not banging the saddle when I post or steadying my hands.  Gait quality has been better of late, but I’m still allowing Derby to go around with his nose poked out like a little hunter.  So staying round, through, bending and forward are very much on my mind these days.

Christy really zeroed in on a couple key issues tonight when it comes to bending and staying round and on the aids.  I’m either not asking for the response I want, or I’m accepting a “meh” response from the horse.   In other words (and this sure sounds familiar) I need to “fix it now.” Some key takeaways from tonight that I must remember:

  • 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.

This video from my lesson captures some of Christy’s advice to me.  By the end of the lesson I was getting much better and faster responses from Derby, and we really started to get it together.  This clip is still chock full of the uglies but I love it because it captures Christy’s advice, and shows that when I follow it, I get the responses that I want from the horse. Until, at least, I stop riding in the last seconds and collapse …

I had to work my butt off but by the end of the ride we managed to get ourselves together more consistently.  Overall, I’m happy with the progress recently, especially with the improvement in the horse’s gaits.  We had a really nice canter tonight that felt fresh and forward, and the trot work across the board has also improved.  I’m putting myself into almost-full training and am excited about my ride tomorrow.  Progress is so motivating. 🙂