Surgery day

Looking around ...

Today’s the day of Derby’s surgery.  He was a bit surprised to see me at the barn this morning, but wasn’t bothered when I interrupted his breakfast with a grooming  However, it was funny, as soon as I put his halter on – which was newly festooned with fleece, he knew something was up.  And when the shipping boots went on, the jig was up.

Derby loaded like a star, standing quietly while I fumbled with the bull-nose clip.  Liz’s friend Christine, who operates Teener Thoroughbreds, hauled him to Merritt Equine for me, and she reported that he was nice and quiet during the ride.

...and around.

Once at Merritt, Derby was greeted by a thermometer wielding vet tech before he got off the trailer.  She had to wait a few minutes for him to un-clamp his tail (he’s a modest fellow) but within short order he was allowed off the trailer.

We checked in, and Derby was shown to a stall. He settled in nicely.  He’ll be there overnight, and we’ll bring him home tomorrow at lunchtime.

Despite the fact that this is a relatively minor procedure that is fairly common, I’m still on pins and needles today.  The surgery is scheduled for early afternoon, and the surgeon will give me a call with a report once it’s over.  Until then, I’ll be keeping my fingers corssed that Derby’s day continues to proceed smoothly and uneventfully. 🙂

Derby’s early days

In doing my research on Derby and his identity, I discovered that he was bred by Airdrie Stud, which is owned by consummate horseman (and former Kentucky governor) Brereton C. Jones.  Derby romped on some seriously hallowed ground in his early days.  Poking around on the Airdrie web site, I found a contact form, and on a whim, sent them a note, not really expecting to hear back, because they’re in the throes of the fall sales, and, well, Airdrie is a big operation.  I don’t have rights to this picture of the farm, but this will give you an idea of  the kind of place it is.  Gorgeous, isn’t it!

Today, I opened my email and found a message titled “Photo of Derby as a foal” from a woman named Laura, who works at Airdrie.  She had trawled Airdrie’s archives, and had found some pictures of Derby as a foal, which she scanned and emailed to me.

He was a cute little dickens!

Importantly, the photos included an up-close shot if his forehead, and there, wandering toward is left eye, is a distinctive smudge of white hairs.  This evidence closes the blooks on Derby’s identification. There were a few little doubts, but  I am now 100% sure he is, in fact, Holy Vows.

Yep, that is definitely Derby! And dang, he was a cutie.

And many thanks again to Laura at Airdrie.  A long retired, unsuccessful gelding means nothing to their business, but despite that, Laura tracked down those photos and sent them to me.  I’m really grateful. Thank you, Laura!

Holy Vows, also known as Derby

Holy Vows, aka Derby, with one of his foals

Well, do I have some news for you.  We’ve deciphered Derby’s tattoo, and we now know “who” he is — Holy Vows, sired by Holy Bull, out of a mare named Final Vows, by Halo.

And, I learned something pretty astounding – Derby was bred before he was gelded, and he has at least two foals on the ground. I found this picture on the web of him, with his filly, last night.  I can’t believe this horse was ever a breeding stallion – he is the polar opposite of studdy, and can walk by a mare without batting an eye (or curling his nose.)

As far as Thoroughbred pedigrees go, this is a good one.  These are quality horses that have proven themselves in athletic endeavors.  Derby wasn’t successful as a racehorse – in fact, he was downright pitiful, running thrice finishing off the board in all starts and dead last in two of them – but he’s got nice conformation and movement – which his more illustrious parents transmitted.  He gets his sturdy build (and his cute face)  from his daddy, champion and Horse of the Year, Holy Bull, as you can  see to the right:


Derby’s dam, Final Vows, was a good producer, and among her progeny she foaled graded stakes winner Mighty Magee, Derby’s half brother.  Her sire was Halo, who died in 2000 and was one of racing’s most prepotent sires, siring super-stallion, champion and classic winner Sunday Silence, Kentucky Derby winner Sunny’s Halo, champions Devil’s Bag and Glorious Song, and a slew of other top race horses including Jolie’s Halo, Lively One and Saint Ballado.

Grandpappy Halo, evil but talented.

It’s a good thing Halo was a good sire, because he was also a miserable creature with an evil temper and a reputation for savaging his handlers.   Needless to say, Derby had his back turned when the genetics were being handed out – he didn’t inherit any of Halo’s brilliance, but he certainly didn’t get that temper, either.

Generally speaking, Thoroughbred bloodlines mean little for dressage.  But to me, each Thoroughbred is a living piece of history.  I followed Holy Bull’s triumphs avidly, and am well acquainted with Halo, his story and his progeny.  It’s fun knowing my boy  has these illustrious ties, even if it means nothing.

Crisp evening

Gazing (thankfully not riding) into the sunset

The weather is getting crisp.  So were my canter transitions tonight.  Derby was much more responsive, and I rode them a bit better too. I didn’t do as many canter-trot-canter transitions as I wanted to – it was a busy night, but after a couple canters we had a pretty decent trot going.  The connection is still lacking.  I’m not sweating this at the moment.  Right now, installing “forward” is key.   Staying balanced and executing the transition with grace is still a challenge but it will become even easier as Derby becomes more responsive and steps into the canter when I ask him.  Reducing the wishy-washiness of my aids will help greatly in this endeavor.

Lesson tomorrow night.  It’s going to be a little chiller, even.  Here’s hoping for a report of even more crisp work tomorrow.

The core of the problem

Our first lesson in more than a month

As you’ve probably surmised due to the infrequent blog posts, the last few weeks haven’t been too exciting.  I’ve been working hard on rebuilding my riding muscles and regaining my seat, and at the same time, I’ve been gradually stepping up the work Derby is doing.   I’m now doing 30-40 minute rides, with about 10-15 minutes of trotting.   For the time being, building our fitness is my main priority.

Now that we’re doing some decent work and are able to sustain our efforts for a little while I decided that it was time to re-start lessons with Christy.  We are thinking of going out to a schooling show mid-August just to get Derby out and about.  We won’t be ready for anything, really, and will probably do a walk-trot test.  But I don’t want to embarrass myself, and I’ve been worried about the quality of our walk.

Derby would prefer to shuffle slowly, and I’ve been working on improving his tempo and energy.  He’s doing much better lately but we lose that energy and rhythm, I’ve noticed, when we circle or serpentine.

As we talked, I sat easily, with loopy reins, and Derby walked – a nice, swingy walk with good energy.  Christy had me gather the reins, and immediately Derby’s stride shortened.  From there, Christy had me keep my legs off Derby, instead, opening up my hip angle, sitting up straight and inviting a bigger stride.  It worked.  Derby went from a stodgy little walk to a nice swingy one.

A nice walk

Christy’s eagle eye had noticed something.  When I gathered the reins up, I leaned forward – very slightly – but it was enough to close my hip angle, causing Derby to shorten his stride.    We experimented with this a little bit, and when I mentioned the difficulties I had maintaining tempo when asking for bend on circle or serpentine, she watched carefully as I asked Derby to bend with my inside leg.

Sure enough, she spotted it.  Whatever I was doing with my inner leg was causing me to close my hip angle.   We figured it out – I was reverting to old habit of curling my heel up when applying my leg.

I've closed my hip and Derby has shortened his stride.

The difference in stills from the video Christy snapped is stark. Derby’s head has popped up and his back is hollow.

From there Christy had us move to trotting, reminding me to post hips to hands, keeping my hip angle open, and engaging my core muscles.    When I followed her instructions, Derby responded immediately, rounding and relaxing, chewing the bit.

But the second I stopped riding,  Derby hollowed and his head came up . “Core!” Christy called in my direction.  I re-engaged my core and opened my hips and the gait quality improved.   Christy reminded me that Derby is very much a “seat horse” – he’s sensitive to the slightest movement of the rider  This is both a blessing and a curse, she told me.  Once I get control of my body and my aids, I’ll be able to influence Derby very subtly.  It’s going to take some work to get there, though!

Related reading:

The new saddle arrives!

The new saddle - an Albion K2 Genesis

I believe the saddle fit woes that kept us grounded are finally over – the new Albion K2 Genesis that arrived last week is working well for both Derby and me – so far.

From my perspective, the saddle is extraordinarily comfortable and well balanced – it accommodates my long femur and my decided preference for a closer contact feel and a narrow twist. Derby seems to like it too – he’s relaxed and isn’t showing any resistance.  His back soreness is almost gone.

The saddle’s arrival coincided with a week of brutally high temperatures, with heat indices of well over 100 for the week.  While it wasn’t pleasant, it didn’t impact my riding.  I was planning on doing light rides with Derby at the outset, just 20 minutes or so, mostly walking – and that’s what we did.   We stepped it up to 30 minutes with more trotting yesterday.  We’re not working on much at all at the moment – getting the horse back into condition to support real work is job one.  I’m starting to ask for some stretching and transitions, and am doing so incrementally.

In other news, some bad habits are back in force – namely, the toes-out, knees-out position I fought to overcome on Maddie last winter.  Because I’m still not working too hard with Derby, I’m picking up rides on other horses so I can sustain my own efforts longer.  Lots of two-point work is ahead of me.  And I have to work on stretching my hip flexors – so I can roll my whole leg inward.  Ugh.  Back to square one!

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.

Joy, Pain & the Outside Rein

Today was truly a day with ups and downs, starting right off the bat with a text from the barn – Derby had been kicked.  It wasn’t an emergency, but he did have some scrapes and the location – the lower part of his chest – isn’t ideal.  The barn owner and her daughter (an ER nurse, and a nurse-to-be) did some triage and cleaned things up.  He’s tender but sound.  Happily, Derby and the other low man in the group who also gets picked on a lot are being moved tomorrow.  This is a relief to me – clearly Derby (and Remy) weren’t in a compatible group – and horses can be tough on each other.

I did an easy ride on Derby tonight, wanting to be sure he was okay after his ordeal this morning, and he was.  We rode outside and he was moving well and willingly.    It sure felt better than yesterday – I had a hideous ride, due (I’m sure) to the lingering effects of the weekend.   My riding muscles were screaming, it was hot, and I think we lasted about 20 minutes.

Today was decidedly better, but I still wasn’t terribly happy with myself.  I could feel myself tipping forward, and letting my leg curl back, so I did some laps in two-point and also did a good exercise Christy taught me – standing two beats and then posting two beats, over and over.  It helps build balance and steady the lower leg.  We did these exercises with loop in the rein – I wanted to be sure that I didn’t accidentally pop him in the mouth if I bobbled.

After we had been moving around for a while, I worked on Derby’s responsiveness to my leg.  I’m still wearing tiny spurs (until my legs are stronger and steadier) but a larger pair have been purchased.   For now, I have to turn my toes all the way out and poke very deliberately if I want to put some spur on.  Which I did, when Derby declined to heed my request (delivered via the inside leg) to step his fine self over, and fill up my outside rein.  He bent outward, effectively counterbending a bit.  I turned my heel in and *poked*.  A ha!  He stepped over!

I’m being very, very careful not to nag with my aids.  My legs are either on or off at the moment – I’m trying to avoid grey areas.  And after a few pokes with the spur, Derby stepped nicelyunderneath himself, and somewhat  into my outside rein when I asked with just some calf pressure.  I say “somewhat” because Derby resists contact a bit, but I’m pretty sure it’s partially a  training issue but primarily a rider issue – he’s better when he’s 1) warmed up and 2) I really ride.

I finished the ride practicing working from my seat – steering Derby with my leg and seat aids, and halting from my seat.  It’s all a work in progress but this sweet boy is a quick study.

After I put Derby away, it was time for my lesson.   Cathy is away this week, and has handed me Atlanta’s reins.  After a rough patch this spring with sore hocks and some farrier issues, Cathy has gotten to the bottom of Atlanta’s issues, and the mare is going magnificently.  I had such fun riding her, and can’t wait to get back on tomorrow and do more.

Christy had seen my ride yesterday which I know wasn’t pretty, and asked me what we were working on tonight.  I told her that I suspected it would be more of the seat and balance issues, but once we got going  … well, things went pretty well.  It was great to ride a big, proper trot again, and while Christy agreed that my stamina has waned, she told me that my form was looking pretty good.  Hooray!  I don’t suck after all!  After hearing that, as I cruised around on Atlanta, I felt nothing but joy.

So the focus turned away from my postion, and instead to the outside rein, and moving the mare around with my seat.  We did an exercise I remember doing with Maddie, when Christy needed to already.  She had me bend the mare to and fro, from just my seat, keeping my hands still.  Then – and tonight with Atlanta – the effect was immediate – the mares both softened and stretched into the contact, backs up and engaged.

We also did some transition work, because I forgot entirely how to ride a graceful downward transition.  By half-halting the mare as I posted, and gradually slowing Atlanta, I was able to produce a nice, smooth, relatively engaged transition. This will be a particularly good exercise to work with Derby on as he gets stronger – half halts are an area of communication we need to improve.

Speaking of Maddie ….

We got some exciting news this weekend about my former mount, Maddie.   She and Heather (her new owner) competed in their first HT this weekend – a rated show up at Silverwood.   They went out at BN (Maddie is just learning to jump) and … they won!  Heather is clearly the perfect person for Mads, who looked enthusiastic and happy in the videos I got to see.  It was thrilling watching my old girl out on XC and in the stadium.  I’m so proud of her!  Congrats to Heather on a job very well done, indeed.  🙂

Meet Derby

Our second ride, first time outside, cantering to the right

Big news, folks – there’s a wonderful new horse in my life! Meet Derby, an 11 year old OTTB that moved in this week.  I’m doing a lease-to-buy on this nice boy, and I have to tell you, I’ve fallen hard for this one.  I knew after one ride that he was the horse for me –  I felt happy and confident when I went for the test ride.    He arrived on Tuesday, and we had our first ride last night – which was totally uneventful.   The strange indoor arena didn’t phase him in the least.  Tonight we rode outside, and once again, Derby was a total star.

Working a stretch

Christy took some video of the ride, which, frankly, I’m embarrased to share with you.  I’ve been riding so inconsistently lately that my strength and balance are pretty much shot.  I feel like a flopping fish and don’t look much better!

Some nice bend

Derby also needs to get in shape.  He was on vacation over the winter, and while he’s in good condition and weight, he needs muscle.  So, we’ll spend the next few weeks doing a lot of conditioning work.  I also need to regain my independent seat and steady my leg.  Happily, this is a horse I can see myself doing a lot of no-stirrup work.  However, before we go there, I want to get Derby’s top line built, and find a saddle that I’m sure fits him well.

I’m still feeling very out of synch and discombobulated with Derby, but we have had some nice moments that leave me eager and impatient to get over this conditioning hump and get my riding legs back.

I also need to figure Derby out.  He has a lot of training but is very resistant to contact.  You can’t just push him into the outside rein and get to work.  He needs to warm up on a loopy rein.  Actually, given the current state of my riding, this isn’t a bad thing.  Riding with pronounced loop in the reins forces me to use my legs and seat to influence the horse. And once I put him to work, Derby is much better about accepting contact.  I’m pretty sure that once I get my strength and balance back, my hands will be steadier and more independent, which will help Derby too.   For now, I love the fact that this is the sort of horse that can go around on the buckle in a new environment.  He is the very soul of a good boy, and I’m crazy about him.

Cantering to the left.

Before my energy totally waned, we got some nice canter both directions, but not before I had to send Christy back to the barn for a whip.  Derby is very responsive to voice aids – a chirp will send him forward, but I’d like him to be lighter and more responsive to my legs and seat, and I’ll be making that a priority over the next few weeks.

We finished up the evening with another grooming session, hand grazing and cookies.   I’m beyond thrilled with this sweet, fancy horse.  Next ride should be on Saturday.  Stay tuned!