More core.

New green duds

I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching Christy ride her horses, and while I always learn a lot, watching her develop Remy over the last year has been especially informative, chiefly because in taking the skinny young OTTB from the track to the dressage ring required her to instill rhythm, contact and cadence in the horse.  Within a few months of his arrival, Christy had Remy going well, and I especially enjoyed watching her work the long-legged boy at the trot, improving his use of his back.  They would go around the arena, doing circles and serpentines at a spanking gait, with Remy staying round and yielding nicely when Christy asked for bend.   I memorized what that looked like.  And I’m trying to emulate it.

I know that she really had to work for that nice gait on Remy when he was greener, and part of that work was finding – and holding – her balance.  While Derbs is no Remy, he is similarly sensitive to my position, providing me instant feedback on how I’m sitting.  The degree of his forward motion varies directly with my balance and position on his back.

So instead of “trotting like Remy,” really, I need to be thinking “sit like Christy” in order to produce the big, forward, flowing gaits I seek.   And I got a bit closer to getting there this week.

Thursday night’s lesson focused on many of the same things I noted in my post on Wednesday, and once we got warmed up, I had a very decent working trot going that Derby was pretty much sustaining.  But I have struggled with maintaining that gait when we do anything other than go down the long side.  So I was paying particular attention to my position (and the horse’s feedback) in my lesson.

As we continued working, things improved, until finally, we were doing a very nice 20m circle around Christy, who had become effusive in her praise.  I had contact, I had forward, I had bend — and it was all pretty easy, I didn’t have to work to hold it. What had I done?  Well, in addition to the checklist I noted in my blog post on Wednesday, I had added one more thing.  Core engagement.  When I engaged my core, I could feel my hip angles opening as my leg lengthened and I sat up taller.  Derby immediately responds to this – when I finally put myself into the right position, he rewards me immediately by rounding and carrying himself nicely.

So here’s my updated 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. 

In other words, sit like Christy!

Two light bulbs

Learning to sit, effectively

My holiday hiatus over, I was looking forward to getting back out to the barn last night for my lesson.  However, though the mind was willing, the body wasn’t.  One of my knees was killing me and the motion of posting was painful.  So Christy reshuffled her deck, and announced that we’d do more warm up work in two point, and then work on sitting trot.

We’re using two point to build my leg strength, so I can start carrying my weight more correctly, instead of relying solely on my stirrups.  As I went around, I lightened my feet in the stirrups, taking more weight on my upper thighs. Then Christy upped the ante, asking me to take some contact and make the horse round. While in two-point.

Now, this took some doing for me. I’ve not done much in terms of influencing the horse while working in two-point.

“Think side reins,” said Christy.  I closed my fingers, and steadied my hands.  Derby started to pull into the contact, and rounded.

“Good. Now send him forward,” said Christy.  Still in two-point, I squeezed my knees.  Nothing.  Determined not to cheat, I squeezed my knees again.

“This trot’s getting worse, not better!” Christy observed.  “Send him forward!”  After another minute of pop-eyed knee-squeezing, I asked Christy exactly how one sends a horse forward when in two-point.

“You can use your legs and your core while you’re in two point,” she said. When she said that, the first light bulb clicked on. I realized that I hadn’t been using my lower leg at all – and the go button is best activated with the calves.   I tightened my core, which magically connected my body to my legs (um. duh.) and eased my knees, letting my calves drape around the horse a bit more, despite maintaining the two point position.  The horse rounded, and when I closed my calves, he went forward.

“There you go!” Christy approved.  So that was my first light bulb moment. From then on, I was able to ride the horse more forwardly, while maintaining some roundness, in a two point.  It was definitely a first.

From there, we took a walk break.  Christy had me focus on feeling the motion with my seat, paying attention to which foot was falling where.  Then she had me swing my hips, telling me to swing the horse up into a trot, and then continue following the motion with my seat.

After a few rough starts, Christy noted that I was starting to curl forward, and was tensing up in an effort to stay light on the horse’s back.  The result was a tooth-rattling ride that wasn’t any fun for the horse, either.

“Lean back, and point your seat bones towards the front of the saddle, ” she told me.  My next try was much more productive.  I was able to feel a few moments where the sitting trot felt really good and connected.  Best of all, the horse was pretty happy throughout.  Derby was staying fairly round – not popping his head up and going hollow.  I fed him some extra rein, as my hands were still bouncing around a bit, and I wanted to focus on staying with the motion.  Eventually, though, I was actually able to take and hold some contact while sitting, and Derby stretched into the contact, holding it nicely.  I was stunned. While I wasn’t really moving Derby out in any semblance of a working trot, nonetheless, this was the first time I’ve ever maintained any semblance of contact and roundness while sitting the trot.   One night, and two light bulb moments! Can’t wait to get out to the barn tonight!