My Schoolmaster

derby and me

He’s as good as Christy at diagnosing what I’m doing wrong.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and since I’ve ridden for that matter.  Between travel for work, and a nasty cold, it’s been more than a week since I last rode.   And when more than a few days passes between rides, I tend to fell pretty out of whack.

“Out of whack” has been a recurring theme for me lately, as we’ve been doing more work on my position.  We also determined that my hands have become unsteady, causing Derby to object stridently. So regaining some semblance of independence in my hands has been at the top of my list.

For my first ride back (yesterday) I spent a lot of time in two-point, reawakening my riding muscles (and garnering a protest from them this morning.)  Then, once I was warmed up, I started to build some connection by not shortening the reins, but by working on riding Derby out and down into contact.  By keeping my hands where they belong, above his withers, I was able to create contact that Derby could start to trust not to jab him in the mouth.

Any time I erred, and started to draw my hands back to my hips, my schoomaster would let me know immediately, by inverting and flinging his head.  As soon as I would push my hands forward, back to where they belong, Derby rewarded me by rounding and moving nicely.

Today I was able to accomplish more.  I could feel things clicking into place and we had some nice work.  Best of all, the work on my position has paid dividends, in the form of more effective aids.  In addition to moving forward nicely, Derby is also responding very well to my requests for lateral movement.  Christy has commented that it’s our job to create the space we want the horse to fill, and I’m starting to experience that first hand.

I have one more ride tomorrow night before heading out of town for a few days, and I have more travel coming up over the next couple weeks.  Things will be spotty for a while, but the feedback from my schoolmaster makes getting back on track easier!


Unfinished business

My plans with Derby have come to a halt for the time being, as he’s busy brewing an abscess in his right front.   The hoof is warm, and getting warmer, and it’s clearly tender.  So as that situation resolves, I’ve been riding Manny and Tucker, and they’ve been giving me invaluable feedback on a bad habit of mine – allowing my hands to creep downward and back, instead of keeping them up over the horse’s withers.   It turns out that Manny and Tucker, with their shorter, higher-set necks, are the perfect schoolmasters for this particular problem.  They also helped me do a better job of using my inside leg to ride the horse out into the contact, another sticking point for me.

I started tackling the problem while riding Manny in a lesson.  Christy caught me pulling his head in, instead of riding him out to the contact, so she had me focus on sitting up and carrying my hands correctly, keeping them quiet, while at the same time using my inside leg to encourage Manny to bend and soften.  As I did so, Manny responded positively.  His back came up and he really engaged for me. The lesson for me was “less is more, but ‘less’ has to be correct.”

I also had a very redemptive ride on Tucker recently.   He’s well trained but he is really hard for me to ride.  However, using some of the tactics from my lesson on Manny, I was finally able to have a decent ride on Tucker.   What both rides really showed me is that I am very hands-y, and am over reliant (and flat out incorrect).  I have rides on both slated for later this week – I’d like to get this bad habit fixed for once and for all before I get back on the Derbster.

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!


I’ll take six pounds, please.

My list of things I must do in order to ride effectively is getting longer with each lesson.  But, happily, my riding is getting better so I’m not complaining.

Derbs and I have been busting our butts despite the heat.  Tonight we got a little relief, riding outside as a storm was blowing in. The temps were dropping and the strong breeze felt great.

At the outset, though, we were a bit stuck.  Derby was strung out, on his forehand, with his nose poking determinedly out. Like a cute little hunter.   See?

Looking like a hunter. Not a dressager. (Trashy pink outfit notwithstanding.)

After watching us go around ineffectually, unable to really change our way of going, Christy zeroed in on the problem du jour.  “Feather light contact is for finished Grand Prix horses and finished Grand Prix riders.  At the lower levels, you need a lot more contact.  If it feels like you have 2 lbs on the reins right now, increase it.  Take 6 lbs of contact.”

So I did.  Yes, I shortened the reins, but no, I didn’t crank Derby’s head in.  That’s not the way we roll at Rettger Dressage.  With my reins the appropriate length (over the withers, and not in my lap, for a change), I closed my fingers, and resolved to keep them closed. Moving off into a trot, I kept my elbows softly by my sides, not allowing them to creep forward.  At the same time, I checked my position to ensure I wasn’t blocking Derby’s movement, and I used my inside leg to get the back legs to really move.  The effect was immediate and profound.

The contact was steady, Derby rounded nicely and and was responsive, bending very nicely and correctly when asked.  The improvement was night and day.  Here’s a video clip Christy grabbed right after I made the change to taking more contact on the reins:

So, without further ado, here is my revised riding checklist:

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

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. 🙂



An Ode, and Some Inspiration

Christy and Liam

I spent a blissful day up at Silverwood yesterday, watching Christy and Liam, as well as a few other friends and lots of area pros.  It was a big “two shows in one” weekend, running three days, and some big names were in attendance.  Ken Borden was there with Rashka, who’s been a USDF HOTY for the last three years running, at Training, First and Second, and it’s easy to see why this horse has more than 20 scores in excess of 80%.  Yvonne Barteau and and her Grand Prix powerhouse GP Raymeister (who, incidentally, is Rashka’s sire) are always fun to watch, and they didn’t disappoint in the musical freestyle I caught.

As much fun as it is to watch grand prix riders on fancy warmbloods, more than anything I still enjoy watching OTTBs go down the centerline.  For me, Christy and Liam stole the show, garnering two more scores toward the bronze medal (yay!!!!) and really illustrating what teamwork is all about. It was a hot day, and the footing at Silverwood is deeper than at home. Christy rode her first test conservatively, to ensure she had gas in the tank for her debut at Second Level.  They put in a good ride and got the score they needed before going back for round two.

During that second warm up, Christy commented that she could feel that Liam was getting tired.  It really didn’t show during the test, however – as usual, the two were in beautiful synch and harmony.  After the ride, however, it became clear that Liam had given Christy his all.  When I took him out to graze and cool off, he was reluctant to leave his stall, trudging slowly (that’s so unlike him) with his head drooping.  Poor boy!   He had been right there in the zone with Christy, and had left it all on the field.  He perked up when we showered him with treats after he had a bath, though.  He knew he had done well! I was overjoyed when we learned that Christy had indeed earned a score in excess of 60% at Second.  She’s halfway to her bronze!  It’s pretty exciting.

I also watched two other OTTBs.  Linus, a 10 year old that evented Prelim last year, went out at PSG and I-1.  He is a magnificent athlete and is a tempi-change machine.  His owner, Carol, says he’s the most athletic horse she’s ever had, and that dressage comes naturally for him.  Watching Linus, who carries a spectacular amount of muscle on his light Thoroughbred frame, is truly exciting and inspirational for anyone who loves Thoroughbreds.  What he lacks in extravagant gaits he makes up in athleticism and enthusiasm.  It’s going to be a fun summer watching him.

Kelly and Bubba execute a very pretty stretchy trot.

Our friend Kelly also had her green bean, a 5 year old OTTB she’s nicknamed Bubba, out for his first dressage show at Training.  He’s done a couple baby combined tests, and is showing a lot of promise.  However, he had some greenie moments during his test, taking exception to the judges booth and spooking whenever he came near C. Kelly rode with tact and empathy, staying quiet but insisting upon forward.  As much as I loved watching Liam and Linus, Bubba’s test was inspiring for me.  Kelly did a wonderful job of keeping the horse on the aids, and had some very nice moments, including the pretty stretchy trot pictured to the left.

The Thoroughbreds all acquitted themselves very well, and garnered compliments from onlookers, who admired how light and refined they appeared in the ring – the differences really are evident because most of the horses doing rated dressage shows are heavier warmbloods and draft crosses.

This morning I uploaded all the video I took yesterday, and watched all the rides once again.  Then I put on my britches and headed out to the barn, where I rousted Derby from a late-morning nap in the sun.  With visions of Bubba’s stretchy trot in my head and Christy’s words from last week’s lessons ringing in my ears (“He needs to be rounder.  Rounder still.  Half halt.  Again.  Again. Soften the inside rein.  Inside leg on. Half halt. Again!!! MAKE IT HAPPEN!”) I paid attention to differentiating between bracing contact and good, roundness. I half halted, and half halted, and half halted, but I was able to get Derby’s back up, and best of all, I was able to hold it.  Getting and maintaining roundness will be the absolute key for us in the coming weeks.  Everything is so much easier when you’re operating from that essential “ready” position, with a forward, round, connected horse.


Fine adjustments

He has good reason to look confused.

My slow crawl back to respectability continues.  In my lesson last night, my endurance improved enough to do more trot work, and it was pretty decent trot work.  With Christy’s coaching, we were able to produce a nicely connected and round trot that had a little swing to it -and we were able to hold it consistently.

To get me there, Christy had me warm up by inviting Derby to stretch out and down.  Once I got there, she had me apply “back to front” aids – correcting my position and closing my legs to keep him forward, while continuing to ask Derby to stretch into the bit.  I needed a barrage of constant reminders, which to the innocent bystander may have sounded like harassment but honestly, until habits form, I appreciate the stream of commands from the center of the ring (“Check your posture! Tuck your butt, stretch and forward!”)

The “tuck your butt” suggestion is shorthand that Christy and I have developed that helps me process what she’s asking for so I can respond more quickly.   We’ve found that coaching commands that carry a visual association really help correct myself more quickly.  When I hear ‘butt tuck’ I respond by doing a few things – I elongate my spine, open my hips and check to make sure my seatbones aren’t pointed backward.   I have the bad habit of wanting to schooch back in my saddle, with my posterior almost on the cantle.  The “butt tuck” is also a reminder to me to put myself on my seatbones in the middle of the saddle.  When I hear Christy say that, it elicits a cascade of actions.

The best part of the ride was the fact that I could feel that the contact on the reins was alive and communicative.  That’s such a good feeling – you have the horse’s attention, he’s working over his back and maneuverable, and you can actually feel the inside hind leg in the reins.  Which sounds ridiculous, but for those who have actually felt that ….you know what I’m talking about.

We also picked apart a problem that evidenced itself with real clarity in the show ring a couple weeks ago, when we veered off course a bit during the sort free walk from F to E, winding up left of the target, almost at V.  In reviewing the video, Christy noticed that I had collapsed to the right, effectively pushing the horse to the left.   I started to experience that last night when we changed direction at the walk, and veered away from my intended path.  I tried to re-balance myself, but it wasn’t until Christy walked behind us and diagnosed what was going on that we could really fix what was going on.

I tend to carry my head tilted to the right.  At the walk, Christy had me sit on my seatbones, and lift my shoulders up up up, stretching and straightening my spine.  She then had me tip my head to the left, until it was straight.   Our walk improved.  However, we were still getting hung up at the trot going right.  Christy had us work both directions, watching intently.

“OK, I know what you’re doing,” she said after a few minutes.   I was leading with the wrong shoulder – twisting in the saddle. Essentially, I was almost in position to bend the other direction.    I straightened my posture once again, got balanced on my seatbones, and rolled my shoulders back, paying attention to the right shoulder (the one that wants to creep and roll forward.) Instantly, I could trot a circle without feeling like I had to work for it.

It’s amazing how these seemingly small changes and imbalances can have such a profound effect on the horse. I’m glad that we can take the time to fix these things, rather than trying to kick the hapless horse “through it.”

Incremental improvements

New red duds for December.

I’ve been working hard since my last lesson, in which Derby was dull and the ride was generally uninspired.   Developing Derby’s forward gears and maintaining engagement and roundness in the transitions have been my primary foci.  However, as part of the working on forward equation, we’ve been doing more work at the canter.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the quality of my homework and am looking forward to my lesson tomorrow.  Derby was good yesterday and really good today – we had some very nice trot work including some bending serpentines in which we maintained impulsion and had good bend.

In the back of my mind today was also the imperative to start working in more correct bend.  When I remembered, I rode bend going into corners, and given the traffic in the arena today, I also had to do changes in direction and line.  We did lots of circles and the quality of that work was some of our best.

Early in the ride, I put Derby into a canter, keeping transition quality in mind.  I also wanted to start doing a better job of riding the canter – holding the contact, pushing the horse into it. and also engaging his hind legs.  Today was – I think – our best canter ever.  Derbs was enthusiastic – he didn’t peter out but instead held the tempo – and I was able to sit up and ride circle that felt balanced.  I also got the horse to move out from that circle – I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a leg yield , but it was in that vein.

We’ve also schooled transitions ( trot / walk / trot) over the last few rides.   First I had to develop more responsiveness from Derbs – you need energy to maintain engagement.  The transitions have improved incrementally from ride to ride, as I do a better job of riding them – using my half halt and getting the horse to soften while staying in the bridle by holding the reins, engaging my core and closing my legs going into the transition.  You have to ride downward transitions forward – which is really counterintuitive for me and something I struggle with. It’s not great yet but we’re doing better, which is enough for me!



Two steps backward, one step forward

I’ve had some interesting rides recently – not great, but interesting and productive.  The good news is that while our canter work lacks grace, I’m growing more and more proficient in that gait. It’s comfortable, I no longer need to work myself into cantering, and I’m starting to actively manage the gait, asking for more a more forward canter, and correcting Derbs when he breaks to a trot before I ask for the downward transition.

Getting the horse forward and into the bridle is still a work in progress.  The key here is getting Derby in front of my leg.  I know that I need to stay on this and not accept a sluggish response.   Today I felt the canter petering out, and reached back and gave him a crack with the whip.  He surged forward, I said “Good boy!” and stayed out of his mouth, letting him go on.

We had kind of a crappy ride in my lesson yesterday – Derby was dull and almost rank – he felt very resistant and we had numerous discussions – about walking, about halting, about transitions.  We abandoned work on transitions in favor of working on getting the horse forward. Christy had me reinforce my aids with whip and spurs and pretty soon, I had some good responsiveness.   But, across the board, the ride wasn’t great.

Today was much better.  Whatever was stuck in Derby’s craw yesterday was absent today.  We had a nice ride, he was nicely in the bridle, and we drilled trot-walk-trot transitions with good results – the horse stayed round and connected.  We also had  nice canter work both ways, and high-stepped over poles, staying round and without ever trying to add a stride (seriously) between poles (a symptom of his being behind my leg, I was told.)

Derbs earned himself a couple days off.  We have family coming over tomorrow and Friday.  It’s going to be warm and sunny, and the paddocks are full of lovely squishy mud that I”m sure I’ll have to chisel off on Saturday.  He’s earned it however.  Good boy!

Contact isn’t a game, and it isn’t magickal.

Well, the crappy weather is upon us, and I donned my favorite cold weather britches tonight (Irideon Wind Pros), wool socks, turtleneck, fleece, jacket and stocking cap and headed out.  The horses were stuck inside for a second day, due to the heavy rains that have turned their paddocks into seas of mud.  Derby was really happy to get out of his stall, to say the least, and the rides we’ve been having lately are great motivation, even on awful nights such as this one.

The walk quality for the last couple days has been really good from the get-go – really powerful and swinging – which I attribute less to my riding and more to the fact that Derbs has been cooped up and has a lot of energy. I’m taking advantage of it, though, and am using the walk as a foundation for getting him really through and into the bridle.   The contact I’m getting is so strong, and even – he’s really pulling into the bit, and I’m feeling his back under me consistently.  Really consistently.  I’m even starting to play with lateral work at the trot – shoulder-in and leg-yield – movements that are way head of the game for us, but helpful in engaging (and strengthening) his hind end.

I attribute our ability to generate shoulders-in and leg-yields directly to the this new-found solid contact.  *This* is what a connected horse feels like! I had a few glimmers of this with Maddie, but wasn’t able to hold the feeling.  Derby and I, on the other hand, have been able to hold it together pretty well lately.

We also have a fantastic free walk – Derbs will follow the reins down to the end of the buckle, and he’ll stay there.  We’ve also experimented with stretchy trot, which is also growning pretty reliable.  I can pick him up, stretch him down, rinse and repeat to my heart’s content.

It’s such an elementary thing but I know – from my own experience and from watching the Dover clinic – that contact is fundamental.  It’s not a game, as some would have you believe, and it’s not an ephemeral state.  It’s physical, it’s feedback, and it’s truly something the rider doesn’t take.  The horse has to give you contact, and the rider has to create the environment that encourages and rewards the horse for doing so.