Dear Muscles: I’m Sorry.

This picture of my retiree, Jag (far right) has nothing to do with tonight’s post. I visited him and his two amigos last weekend, They were all mugging for treats. Sweet boys.

The last two weeks have been a strange and frustrating oddessy.  It started when I dropped my stirrups a hole, and had to remodel my seat (and muscles).  I had the great idea to help myself along by doubling down on the workouts, thinking that I’d suffer a bit but get over the hump faster.

I was wrong.  Very wrong.

About a week before the show, I staggered into the barn for a lesson, which turned out to be a total waste of time, due to the fact that I had pretty much exhausted myself earlier that day.  I apologized to Christy and told her I’d do my tougher workouts on non-lesson days.  She said that was a good idea, but also suggested that I back off a bit in general.

I decided to listen to her, and stopped all strenuous cardio work, because my legs just weren’t recovering.  My muscles – especially my riding muscles, felt exhausted all the time.  They were weak, and burning. When I rode, I had very little endurance.  It was ugly.

The show itself, as I mentioned was physically exhausting.  I have some new insight into my rides from Christy that I’ll share soon, but one key thing she noticed in the video of the rides is that I was double bouncing when I posted.   And that problem persisted a couple days after we got home.

While things have improved a bit this week (the double bouncing has been banished) I still haven’t been riding well.  Saturday was total mess, as a friend stopped by to meet Derby, and he was super fresh and looky, and I just didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with it.  Sunday started out the same way, so I put him on the longe. There was a lot going on that day – kids running all over blowing bubbles and riding Big Wheels, tractors and weedwhackers all over the place – you get the idea .  Derby starte off running like an idiot, but I was soon able to get him listening.  We did all sorts of transitions – walk, trot, canter, walk, halt, etc. and Derby really dialed in. He was listening well and even stayed focused during some pretty loud noises outside.

We joined Christy & Liam and Donna & Boomer outside, and to my delight, even though he was presented with some totally new sights (kids on swingset, the aforementioned toddler on the Big Wheel) he was as good as gold.

A few days ago, we talked about what was going on.  My legs still felt terrible and the endurance and strength just weren’t there. So I put more protein and more carbs back into my diet.  I took it easy for a few more days.  I added a multivitamin that is also supposed to boost energy.  I’ve loaded up on potassium rich foods.  I’ve changed up my schedule eating what amounts to my dinner at around 4 pm.

And finally, today, I felt better.

And finally, today, I was capable of a decent ride.

I’m so damn relieved.

I was finally able to carry myself, and Derby appreciated it, responding to my inside leg, softening and rounding.  As the lesson went on, my muscles started to fatigue but they weren’t shutting down, there was no burn.  It was a definite step forward.   And the quality of our ride really improved.  Nice transitions, a little nice canter.  And most important, a good connection.  Christy had me think about feeling his mouth in the context of the contact asking me at various points what I thought, and what I felt, and challenging me to remember what it feels like when there’s contact but the mouth is silent, because the horse is braced against the bit. “You hate that feeling,” she said. “Remember it. You hate that.  You don’t have control when he’s like that.”

I’m eager to get back out there tomorrow.  We’re aiming at another schooling show – and some redemption – at the end of the month!

Don’t get through it. Perform it.

A nice moment. One of several, for a change.

Day by day, things are getting a bit easier with the new, longer leathers and subsequent position changes.  I’m still a long way from being solid and strong in the saddle but I can feel improvement daily.   In today’s lesson, we made a show-ring quality trot a priority.  Sounds easy, but for me, at the moment, it’s not.   Putting the horse together, while maintaining a decent forward gait in a seat that still feels a bit precarious isn’t easy and the relative lack of stability gives me some heebie jeebies now and then.

Wake up, Derby. We need to work hard on quality next, but my seat is coming along.

The ride started out a little “eh.”  I will freely admit that I’ve not been riding as forwardly as I should, due to the above mentioned issues with the new position.  I have been doing some canter work though, and I needed it tonight, to get my pokey pony into gear.

In reality, though, the pokiness wasn’t entirely Derby’s doing.  When I straighten up, open up my hip angles and drape my calves along his sides, he goes forward nicely,  I’ve been reverting to trying to drive with my foot hovering on the brake.

Once we got warmed up, we ran through Intro A.  The results were uninspiring.   “Don’t just get through it,” Christy insisted.  “Perform it.”

A-ha.  That gave me a new (and badly needed) perspective.  I was just going through the movements, and it showed. I rode it again, this time with some purpose.  It got better, especially as I paid attention to riding from my seat and legs, and staying out of Derby’s mouth, quieting my hands.

Free walk. This is coming along.

We then went through Intro B.  Finally, things were clicking into gear. As I rode Derby more forwardly, Christy observed that he really started to carry himself.  It felt great, and in addition to some nice roundness and contact, I also had his back up and his back end under me.  I love that feeling – when you have the horse packaged up, they feel so together, responsive and maneuverable.

Overall, I’m finally able to produce some decent gait quality and keep it for more than just a fleeting instant.  I hope we keep progressing!

Tomorrow I need to send in my first show entry.  It’s a schooling show up at Silverwood, and I’m going to ride Intro A and B.  I was hoping to ride C but as you can see from the canter picture above, we aren’t ready to take that into the show ring.  First things first – I have to re-establish the basics before I can even think of doing more.  We’re not ready to really perform the canter in public … yet.  For now, I’ll have to content myself with how pretty the late afternoon sun makes everything look, especially our new periwinkle duds.  🙂

A friend complimented me on matching the clouds. Yep. Meant to do that.

Trot trot trot

Sporting his new springtime saddle pad.

Tonight’s lesson featured more work on patterns, but with more trotting and fewer walk breaks.  Derby continues to feel fantastic. His rider needs to get stronger!  We’re jumping up to 45 minute rides starting on Saturday, and 45 minute lessons next week.

For fun I picked up a cute new springtime saddle pad today.  How cute is this?

At this point I should admit that I actually bought two cute saddle pads today. They’re both AP pads – I wish they’d make fun dressage pads. Anyway. Here’s the other one.

Four leaf clover

Good news, we're not broken, nor have we taken leave of our senses

I squeezed another lesson into Christy’s schedule to deal with the issues that cropped up on Monday night.  I’m happy to report that we had a nice ride, Derbs thought about looking at nothing once but we dealt with it, but that was it.

I suspect two issues contributed to my right-lead difficulties on Monday.  First, I need to do a better job of producing good bend.  I’m simply not asking for it.  I need to practice generating bend whilst maintaining my new-and-improved position – which is kind of hard for me – Christy noted that I was letting my knees creep up, effectively closing my hip angle.  Hmm.  No wonder my forward gears were petering out.  Christy observed that Derby is a ‘seat ride’ and is very responsive to little things – such as when I close my hip.  On the up side, this does give me instant feedback, so I am alerted that there’s something I need to fix.

The other issue is actually horse-related.  I’ve really upped my riding recently, and Derbs is working harder.  He was getting tired on Monday night. I need to build his fitness, and respect the fact that as I up the ante, I need to work him within that context.    We need to get those sadde pads wet.

For last night’s lesson, Christy had me ride a big four-leaf clover.  It was an ideal exercise to practice bending one direction, especially for where I’m at, because it includes moments of straightening which I needed to reorganize.  To ride the clover leaf, I essentially rode a loop in each corner.  So to start, you’d ride from A to C, turning right at C, and then turning right again at B, bisecting the arena and riding straight to E, turning right and doing a loop in that corner, turning right again at C, riding straight to A, turning right at A, doing a loop, turning right at E, riding straight to B, turning right … you get the idea.  It rides nicely and affords lots of bend/straighten/bend practice.   Rinse and repeat going the other direction.

One other thing came to the fore last night – I’ve been letting Derby sucker me into a less good-quality trot.  Christy got us back on track last night, telling me to ride like I was doing a lengthening.  “Now that’s your trot!” she exclaimed as we powered down the long side.  My challenge here is to keep my knees down and hips open, to guard against losing that forward impulsion.

 

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.)

Channeling Robert Dover (or trying to, at least)

I have nine pages of notes and hours of video from the weekend’s clinic with Robert Dover, hosted by Wyngate Equestrian, and I really will try to synthesize all that info and share it with you.  For now, I’ll stick to just a couple key things I took away from the experience.

First and foremost,  Dover focuses on the basics.  He tested almost every rider’s connection with their horse, and proceeded with the lesson based upon what he observed during the exercise, no matter what level the horse and rider were at.  One rider, who was mounted on one of the most fabulous horses in for the clinic (and that is really saying something, folks, there were truly some world-class animals there, including one that had been shortlisted for the Pan Am Games) that was purportedly schooling all the FEI work wound up working on getting the horse through and into the bridle honestly!  It was an astounding lesson, from the standpoint that someone at that level could have such fundamental weaknesses.  And this rider wasn’t alone.  Another GP rider had similar issues with connection, and a third rider who was competing at fourth spent most of her lesson working on bend.

It was fascinating watching Dover work with these three in particular, because I really wasn’t expecting to see people with issues to which I can really relate.  The difference in the riders from the beginning to the end of their lessons was amazing, and one rider must have done extra homework, because her ride the following day was truly extraordinary, drawing applause from the auditors, myself included.

In addition to his emphasis on the basics, Dover also emphasized perfection. “Walk perfectly,” he said dozens of times, going on to say that if your horse wasn’t through and on the aids at the walk, it wouldn’t be through and on the aids anywhere else.    He required riders to follow his instructions precisely, and had them repeat the movement when it wasn’t up to his standards.    As Christy noted in her first recap of the clinic, every rider rose to his challenge.  In our chat about the clinic afterwards, Christy and I both noted that the charge to expect more of you, and your horse, was one that we would be taking back to Silver Fern.

Finally, the last big take away for me was around forwardness and responsiveness.  I *know* that you need your horse to be forward and attentive, willing to respond instantly to the subtle aids that make well-ridden dressage so beautiful. Dover emphasized the fact that how we ride trains our horses, and essentially, we have to ride them like we want to ride, and require them to respond.

As I said, I have a lot more to share about the clinic, but now I need to talk about today.

Derby’s abscess seems to have healed nicely, but he’s been short on his right hind (the abscess was in the left.) I had the vet out, and while she did support putting him on Adequan and said he would need to have his hocks done at some point, the issues I’m seeing are more about weakness and tightness in his SI region. She prescribed a course of forward, correct work.  Which means that between what I learned from Robert Dover and what my vet says the horse needs, I need to make some changes.

It’s been two weeks since I really rode, so I did a short lesson to get back into the swing of things.  I told Christy to take no prisoners, and my formerly sweet trainer turned into a demanding taskmaster.  But that’s what we needed, and we had a good ride  – despite his reluctance to use his back end and step under himself, I was able to get him to do both, with constant coaching from Christy.

Because the correct work is now an absolute imperative, I’m taking lessons each night this week, and on Saturday, and will probably repeat the same next week.  I need to channel Robert Dover and get the perfect work Derby and I badly need.