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.


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.