Tightening the screws

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

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

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

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

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

Correcting ourselves and getting the horse off his forehand

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

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

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

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.

Walk Perfectly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of the week

After three great rides, I was hoping to keep the momentum going but Derby was feeling the effects of the stepped up work ( at least that’s what I’ve concluded, and I had overdone things in a workout earlier that day and had almost zero in the tank.  Our work was OK, and we got the canter both ways, but Derby was resistant and registered his discontent with a little buck.   Friday the horses were back outside (the icky weather kept them inside for a couple days earlier in the week) and he had the day off.

We started today with a set of new shoes, but Derby was still a bit uncomfortable for the farrier, and I had to free longe him to loosen up his back end so he’d tolerate getting his hind feet trimmed.

Our ride – my first on my own since the clinic – was pretty good.  I worked on lateral work, especially leg yielding the trot, and did some canter work both ways, and his attitude was much improved compared to Thursday’s as well.  Overall the contact was pretty good, as were the quality of the gaits.

After we rode, I put him on the longe, for the prescribed longe work.  He was swapping leads pretty badly earlier in the week, but today I got good quality work both ways.  I do hope we’re well along the road to recovery and loosening (and strengthening) those big muscles.

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!

The Prescription

Crappy eq notwithstanding, Derby is going more reliably round, forward, and on the bit.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Derby is suffering some latent stiffness and muscle pain stemming from both the abscess and the fact that he really needs more conditioning, especially with respect to his hind end and his top line.  At the moment, some muscles in his hind end are quite tense and tight, causing him to move stiffly, starting from his hips, and evidenced by shorter strides, and a back that doesn’t swing.  He’s particularly reluctant to move out on his right hind, and Dr. Nicky said she suspects that he’s still off from using his hind limbs asymmetrically when he had the abscess. She prescribed Robaxin along with a program of longing and riding with the specific aim of stretching and strengthening those muscles.   So, even though he’s not moving perfectly, I need to get on and really ride.

This is what I need to really shoot for - getting him to step up under himself, while maintaining roundess and contact, to keep him over his back. This requires multitasking on my part.

The imperative from the vet and the lingering effects of the Dover clinic have galanized me, and Christy, who is no longer inclined to cut me any slack.  The lesson tonight worked a lot on leg yield and canter transtions, which were especially sticky to the right, requiring me to sit up, ride and require equine compliance and cooperation.

Overall, I’m happy with our work tonight.  The trot is more reliably round and forward.  I’m getting better contact, though I may have to give some credit to a softer bit – Derby went very nicely in a fat KK, switching out from the thinner Myler comfort snaffle.   And after a few attempts, I got a nice, immediate upward transition going right.  That took some doing – that’s the lead we’ve been having difficulty with, most likely due to the abovementioned lameness and conditioning woes.  We had no such issues going left – Derb picks that lead up right away.

And the trot is better, though in this video, you can see in Derby’s tail carriage (tense, held out) that he’s a bit uncomfortable. I hate that he is, but am determined to minimize this uncomfortable period by rigorously following the vet’s instructions, (and feeding lots of carrots and cookies to make up for it in the meantime.)


Practice braids. My first ever. Meh.

With the show just days away, I still have a lot to do.   And I got a rude awakening last night when Christy reminded me that USDF rules apply to this show – meaning jackets, braids, the whole kit and caboodle.   Crap! Braids!  I was planning on rocking a nicely pulled mane.  So tonight I experimented, and came up with something that will look OK and won’t require me to learn how to sew in button braids, yet.  Some additional practice is needed, however.

In addition to the braids, we also had a long list of things to address in the lesson, chief among them the free walk and downward transitions.  We made some progress in the free walk – if I get really active and push with my seat, I can get Derby to stretch and swing.  A bit.  This is very much a work in progress.

Our trot work is almost pretty.

Downward transitions went better.  Christy had me work on getting Derby more in front of my leg by having me trot, walk one step and then immediately trot again.  This forced me to use my half halt and within a minute he was working very nicely – his back was up, his hind engaged and we had good contact.  When we added the halt through a medium walk we had our best executions of this movement to date.  Not perfect, but markedly better.

Our trot work was better too.  Christy worked with me on being more assertive (and nagging less) and we had a more forward, quality trot tonight.    So, progress.

In other news, the mosquitoes are close to plague levels.  The nights are lovely and cool, but the horses are being pestered by ravening hordes of evil airborne bloodsuckers.  Because it’s cooled off, I hauled out Jag’s old fly sheet and boots, and I festooned Derby in protective gear.   It looks goofy, but while the others run and roll, he stands quietly. As long as it stays cool, I’ll keep him decked out in his bug suit.

I think he looks kind of cute. In a pathetic and dorky way.



I’ve been cramming in as many lessons as my schedule – and Christy’s – will permit.  I’m glad I did, because it’s paying off.  Today, riding solo, I had a solid ride and even logged a few improvements.

As I mounted up, I ran down my mental checklist.   Don’t accept the wrong answer, like sluggish responses, a hollow back or an up-flung head.  Correct problems immediately. Hold the contact.  Use my seat and legs, not hands.

After letting Derby stretch a bit, I started more serious work at the walk.  He was a bit locked up on the right side, so I worked on suppling him, flexing right and left, then bending and a little shoulder in, while staying round.    Moving into the trot, things improved.  Our upward transition was really nice and Derby was a lot more forward. He stayed nice and round as we motored around.  I had to work a bit on roundness and connection as we did 20m circles, but we produced some good work and Derby was moving beautifully laterally.

For fun, I asked for a canter, and got a decent upward transition and a much more forward canter than I had in one of my lessons last week, in which I had to really encourage Derby to move out.

Next, we worked on some transitions, practicing halting through a working walk. The first few were ugly, and Derby’s elevated nose told me all I needed to know – I wasn’t riding him into the contact – I was giving him rein as we slowed.  I tried again, holding the reins, keeping my shoulders back, and engaging my core.  Better.

We finished up doing some relaxed changes of rein across the diagonal, and then some elongated figure 8’s, bisecting the arena across the centerline.  I wanted to do a little work on the tight turns off the diagonal and onto the centerline I’ll encounter in the tests.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the ride, especially the fact that we were able to maintain decent quality throughout most of the ride.  It’s back to boot camp starting on Monday.   I’m glad I was able to get my homework for today done.  While I wouldn’t call it “perfect practice,” it was an above average ride for me.

Glimmer of hope

He's a good buddy.

Well, after today’s lesson, I have a little more hope for our outing next weekend.  Unlike Thursday’s ride, which was about 95% icky and about 5% acceptable, today I was able to maintain a rounder horse, steadier contact and a nicer gait.  Derby was moving very nicely off my aids, and our geometry was decent too.  Transitions still need work but I have six rides until we trot down the centerline, which is plenty of time to tighten the screws.

So this ride was much improved.  I’m starting to believe we won’t make a terrible hash of our walk-trot tests next weekend.  Needless to say, I’m relieved.  I think Christy is, too!

What was the secret to today’s significant improvements?  Actually, there were a few.

    • Intention.  Christy gave me a little pep talk, saying that I need to be more demanding of myself, and the horse.  “Require the response,” she reminded me. “Ask nicely once, and then use your whip if you have to.”  Sage advice, and it worked.   Our gait quality was much better.
    • Immediacy.  There’s no reason to go around half a lap with a hollow horse.  When Derby goes hollow I need to correct him pronto.   My timing is getting better but this does still need work.
    • Steady hands & hold the contact.  This means closing my fingers, holding my hands steady and quiet (and keeping them independent) and adding a little pressure before transitions.  Adding pressure before I require (yes, require, not “ask for”) a movement is a great reminder to not throw the contact away.
    • Inside leg, inside leg, inside leg.  Ride the horse from my seat.
    • Use the core.  Keeping my core engaged adds to the steady contact – especially in transitions. If I collapse my core when I do a transition, I’ve effectively given away the reins.  Derby, God love him, is an opportunist, and he readily pops his head up and nose out when I let him.

So, things were better today.  Looking forward to getting back on tomorrow!

Stretch goals

Finally! I'm staying out of his way, and presto - the back comes up. Good boy!

Stretchy trot is not a movement I’ve practiced much or ride well.   But as I’ve noted previously, I need to make a point of riding Derby over his back, and stretching into contact, in order to start building correct muscle, fitness, and his top line.  I’m also trying to build my riding muscles back up and improve the independence of my hands.  We focused on these issues in my lessons later this week.

A nice albeit fleeting moment from our lesson 6/22

On Wednesday, Christy had me pick up from my earlier ride on Atlanta, and focus on moving the horse around with my seat, while also keeping my hands quiet.   We had some nice moments but really, the ride was mostly about me trying to get my act together, and continue to figure out what makes Derbyhorse tick.

She had me start by asking Derby to relax and give his neck at the walk.  We then moved into some trot work, starting out on a loopy rein.  I’ve discovered that I have to stay out of Derby’s face, and instead use my seat and leg aids – especially an active inside leg – to generate the results I want.

Which is easier said than done for me at the moment.

Tonight’s ride was better, chiefly because Christy had us do a new exercise that worked really well.  I started out  trotting on a loopy rein, exaggerating the loop to keep my hands entirely out of the picture.

Christy then had me do two things – post from a half seat, staying off his back, and simultaneously move him around without the reins – which is another way of saying “get busy with your inside leg!”

The response from Derby was almost immediate:

Derby stretches on a loopy rein.

Derby stretched down, and stayed there.  We motored around like that for a while, despite the fact that I was dumping him on his forehand.

Christy had me gently shorten the reins a hair,  and focus keeping my hands steady, telling me to think of my hands as side reins.  She also had me close my fingers, reminding me that “There’s no way for you to give with open fingers,” while also telling me to let Derby find the end of the reins and invite him to hold the contact in his stretch.

And that’s when things started to feel pretty good indeed.  Derby’s back came up a bit, and while he wasn’t moving with a big, ground-covering stride, he was holding the contact and keeping his back up – a definite improvement from motoring around on his forehand as we had been doing earlier in the ride.  We were able hold the stretch for as long as I was able to maintain the light seat, steady hands and active inside leg, which as you can see from the video below of this ride is still very much a work in progress.  And while the quality of the trot wasn’t great, in reality, there’s only so much I can do at once. I’ll start asking him for a proper working trot as I get better at holding the light seat with independent hands.  Anyway, for the sake of documentation, here it is:

The good news is that we really got the hang of stretching, and eventually Derby brought his back up, seeking and holding the contact.  I’m really pleased, because after spending the last few months watching Christy patiently build Remy’s fitness, I know that a lot of steady trot work in a stretchy, connected frame is an important building block.  And, at training level, the stretchy trot carries a double coefficient – it’s an important test of the horse’s connection.   Getting good at this is important, but I know I can do this on my own and that we’ll improve.  Tonight was just the start.