Upward spiral

He’s a good buddy.

I have to start today’s post with a little silly horse bragging.  Tuesday’s vet appointment was first thing, and there was a real chill in the air.  Between the crisp temperatures and the fact that everyone else had been turned out, Derby was a bit wound up.  So I put him in the outdoor arena to work off some steam before the vet showed up.  Work it out he did – running, bucking and farting – before finally having two good rolls in the sand. Then he went and grazed the clover and tufts of grass growing along the edges.  Out of the reach of the mower, and recently rejuvenated by some rain, the edges of the arena provided some good eatin’.

After 15 minutes or so, the vet rolled in.  As they were unloading their things, I went up to the gate and called Derby to me.  He picked up his head and sauntered across the area to me.  My vet’s assistant happens to be Derby’s old owner.  She was amazed that Derby – who is very food motivated – would leave grass when I called.   He’s such a good boy!

Now on to the vet visit.  The good news is that the scoping showed zero inflammation of the airway, and zero lesions.   But there was some bad news too.  Derby has started to aspirate food into his airway.  This is the very last thing I wanted to hear, because aspirating food into the trachea can lead to choke and pneumonia.  Scary stuff.

We talked about surgery, but in the meantime, because the matter appeared to be hay, the vet told me to soak his hay.   She also told me not to worry too much – the coughing he does clears the airway.  That explains why I’ve been experiencing more coughing lately.

I focused on using my inside leg to engage Derby’s hind legs, getting him to step up under himself and engage.

On Tuesday night, I rode after Derby had his evening feed.  It was a beautiful, cool night, and he felt great – a little coughing at the beginning of the ride, but then he was pretty quiet.   Last night was the same story.  The wet hay really seems to be helping!  Our hay has been very crumbly – the flakes almost fall apart.  This is due to the drought -the plants are short, dry and stunted.  So instead of having nice, long blades of grass and other plants, the hay has little scraggly bits.  And he must be sucking those into his airway.   So hopefully we’ll dodge a bullet by continuing to soak his hay!  That beats the socks off tie-forward surgery, which is big surgery (the horse is fully out, on his back) and carries no guarantees.

In our lessons this week, we’re focusing on two things – maintaining strong, forward gaits, and activating Derby’s hind legs.  As I’ve mentioned before, these are two historically weak areas for me.    On Tuesday, the focus was really on bend and getting those hind legs to step under.  On Wednesday, it was more of the same, but we added extra focus on gait quality.   I caught myself twisting in the saddle again on Tuesday, causing the horse to fall inward, and forcing me to refocus on my position.  Christy helped me through this by telling me not to worry about fixing my legs (which I was – my outside leg would creep forward, and my inside leg back – ugh) but instead had me focus on my seat and leading with my inside seatbone.  That was the solution to the problem.   We were able to spiral in and leg-yield out nicely.

We’re working on engagement at the canter. The nice moments are coming more frequently, but we’re not yet maintaining the “niceness” all the time.

The canter is still very much a work in progress. I’m looking forward to the day when I have the same influence over the canter as I do the trot.  Right now I have two canters – crappy and decent.   While “decent” is a start, it’s not “working.”  I’m still developing my seat at the canter, and at the same time, I’m starting to think about getting the horse to move more forwardly, soften and engage his hind end.  We have quite a way to go in this gait!

Last night’s theme was “decide to do it.”  I had mentioned to Christy that I had difficulty maintaining a big, forward trot on a circle with correct bend and engagement.  After putting us through our paces, Christy diagnosed that (again!) the issue was with the pilot, not the pony.

“Pretend Robert Dover is watching you,” she said, hearkening back to the clinic, in which we saw what happened when riders were asked to expect more of themselves, and their horses. “Decide how you’re going to ride and then do it.”   So, I did.  I closed my legs, and was fast with a thump of a heel or tickle with the whip if he started to stall out.  Christy was right – it was more about making a decision and following through.   We finished the ride with few laps of big, forward, connected trot after all the work on the circles, and Derbs felt great throughout.

All in all, despite the scary interlude with the airway issues, I feel like we’re managing to spiral a little upward (in addition to in and out, in and out.) 🙂

This is a canter we can work with!

Finally! We’re developing roundness at the canter. Yay!

I’ve really been busting my hump lately, and tonight we took another couple steps forward.  I was able to replicate the fleeting roundness at the canter I felt over the weekend, and I even held it together.   A round canter feels ENTIRELY different.  It is dreamy!  So that’s what the fuss is all about.  I get it! 🙂  And I was thrilled when Christy said “Now this is a canter we can work with,” and then started talking about getting out at Training.  This year.


Much remains to be done.  Everything needs to be smoother, more balanced, and more consistent. But there were a few other high points this evening.

Round downward canter-trot transition

Starting the transition downward

Two strides later – no upflung head!  We stay round, steady, forward and quiet.

Starting to push the working trot out:

Oh! And stretchy trot. Forgot to mention we did that too! Woot!

So, this was an awesome ride. One of my best ever. And there was a secret ingredient.  Forward.  The horses were in all day today, and Derbs was fresh.  Having ready access to forward gears made everything work better.  I have to continue developing (and riding and encouraging and reinforcing and rewarding) forward thinking behavior from the Derbster.

Here’s a look at some video from late in the ride.  I was really running out of gas and it shows.  However, we still got some nice moments.  It’s a definite improvement.

Planetary alignment? Whatever. I’ll take it.

If you noticed a shift of the Earth’s axis around 7:30 pm (CST) this evening, don’t be alarmed. I have an explanation. The shift you felt was a direct effect of the alignment of the planets that occurred at about the same time. In addition to the axial tilt you may have noticed, the alignment of the planets also caused Derby and I to have a very nice ride tonight.

At this point, the planetary alignment theory makes good sense, because there is no way around it, I’ve been riding like absolute shite for the last week. Actually, Christy and I kicked some theories around while grazing our horses afterward, but first, let me tell you how the evening went down.

I prodded Derby’s back and didn’t love what I saw. While he wasn’t super-sore, his back was reactive. I hemmed and hawed, and then decided to tack him up. They were in today due to thunderstorms, and if I didn’t decide to ride, we’d have a longe session instead.

I told Christy what was going on, and what worried me. I was prepared mentally to deal with the balking and backing I was starting to experience. Dealing with those behaviors is actually something I have some experience with, and Derby isn’t a scary customer. But I get uncomfortable very quickly when the horse is off. I refuse to punish a horse that is resisting due to pain. To do so is not only rotten horsemanship, it’s patently unfair.

So I leveled with Christy, telling her that he was a bit sore, and voicing my trepidation. We talked through it, and I decided to get on, and see what we had. If he wasn’t feeling good, I’d hop off.

After we walked for a few minutes, I started bending Derby on a shallow serpentine. “That looks good,” said Christy, and it felt good, too – Derby was moving easily. We picked up a trot, and after the obligatory clearing of the pipes, we did a couple laps at a snappier pace, and all was looking good. So we cut the the chase and rode the tests.

And we rode them well. Derby was round, steady, and really reaching for the contact. I went through Intro A in silence, as Christy was stunned into speechlessness. We were both thrilled. I hopped to and started Intro B. That one rode even better. Derby stayed round, was very responsive off my legs, and continued to seek the contact.

We were an entirely different horse and rider.

Now, don’t take this the wrong way when I say that it was easy. I was able to maintain myself comfortably and balanced in my new position without having to think about it. As a result, I rode much more forwardly and stayed balanced. I was able to take my foot off the virtual brake that my unsteadiness caused.

God, what a relief tonight was. I was wondering what in Heaven’s name was happening to us. We’re back on the path to respectability. And Training Level.


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.

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!



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.)

Two firsts in one lesson.

We got some really nice work tonight.

We had such a fun ride tonight.  Going into my lesson, I mentioned to Christy that I wanted to work on “forward” first, because it’s dang hard to connect a horse that isn’t moving.    Once I had warmed Derby up and trotted a few laps, we cantered a few times – just a lap or so, because neither of us have an excess of fuel in the tank.  However, Derby still wasn’t in front of my leg, so Christy had us work on some exercises to get us there.

First, on a circle, she had me do trot-walk transitions, only walking two strides before picking up the trot again.  Initially, the transitions were mushy – indistinct and not prompt.  Christy had me remedy this by *requiring* a crisp, “trot NOW” transition.  Derby replied enthusiastically on our next attempt, stepping straight into a canter.

Not the prettiest moment in equitation, but I like how he's stepping up underneath himself.

Okay, so our first walk-canter transition was an accident, but it felt awesome.  I allowed Derby to roll for a minute, because an enthusiastic forward response is a very good answer.  The last thing I needed to do at that moment was to jerk him in the mouth and punish him.    From there, quickly tallied our second “first” of the evening.  Christy had us do trot-canter-trot-canter transitions, with just a few strides of each gait – and Derby responded with alacrity.  And after that, the overall quality of our work improved.

Best of all, we were able to get the transitions both ways. I still need to work myself into balance going right, but I’m able to get there, and able to generate good work that direction.

To wind the ride down and let the horse stretch (he’s been stuck in his stall for the last two days due to torrential rain and thunderstorms) we just trotted some laps – but I was asking for a big, reachy trot and also asking Derby to work over his back.  Building top line is still a top priority, and this is a good way to do it.  I was happy with his responsiveness and overall, it was a fantastic ride.  We need to keep him in front of my leg but we really are making progress.  He’s a good boy!

A fun (and successful!) first show

Red ribbons for me, and a giant bucket of cookies for a very deserving Derby.

Today was my first outing with Derby, and though we didn’t produce the best test we could, the day was an unqualified success. And I had a lot of fun!   I really couldn’t be much happier.

The day started in the wee hours, before sunrise.  I rolled into the barn and surprised a dozing Derby when I pulled him out of his stall for a mane braiding session.  My fellow show-bound riders Liz and Cassie showed up, along with our dressage trainer, Christy, shortly after I started on Derby’s mane.  All the horses were clean, polished and booted when the trailer pulled up at 6:30.    I was totally thrilled with how Derby loaded.  After enduring some hair-raising episodes with other horses, I have to tell you, my favorite moment of the day was when Derby stepped up onto the trailer and quietly started nosing his hay while I hooked the trailer ties.   He unloaded easily too, once we arrived, and was unruffled as we walked around the facility hosting the show. I didn’t care what happened at that point.  I was really happy with him.  What a cool customer.

Soon it was time to tack up and get going.  The warm up was busy but Derby didn’t look at a thing.  We stretched a bit and trotted around, but I wanted to conserve our energy, so I didn’t do much.

Heading down the center line for the first time!

The tests were being ridden on a dressage court just outside the big indoor where we were warming up.  We walked out of the indoor and down to the court for our test, where things got momentarily interesting.  A horse was unloading in the field adjacent to the dressage court, and a mini-donk on the property started to welcome the new arrival at the top of his lungs.  EEEE-AWWWW EEEEEE-AWWW!  At that moment, Derby noticed the people under the tent we had walked by and around just an hour ago.  He shied and suggested that we turn around.  I disagreed, and put him to work with a few circles, bending etc.  In just a minute we regained our composure (and our marbles), greeted the judge and scribe, and then we were on our way.    Derby was still a bit tense but was otherwise as good as gold.  I didn’t push it and rode conservatively, but it was still good enough for a 60.5% and a second place riboon.

It’s been a while since I was in the ring, and I won’t kid you – I went to this show without having even ridden completely through one of these two tests.  (Reference earlier comments about not being entirely ready …)  And after my first test, I was struck by how quickly the movements came.   I knew I hadn’t done a great job of setting myself up for subsequent movements – a fact that would later be borne out by the judge’s comments.   We went back to the warm up (my next ride was scheduled for just 20 minutes later) to think about things. The next ride was better.  I rode Derby a bit more forwardly, and was faster to make adjustments and corrections.  Our score crept up one percentage point, my rider scores were better, and our efforts garnered us another second place ribbon.  It’s not terribly exciting, but here’s the video:

A nice moment, right in front of the judge. We got a 7 on this circle. Yay!

I took Derby back to his stall, untacked him and took out his braids, while simultaneously feeding him cookies, brushing him off, and telling him what an awesome boy he was.  I left him to chill with a big serving of soaked beat pulp and alfalfa, and went to watch the others ride and to hang out with our friends Sue and Brittany, who came along to offer moral support.

It was such a beautiful day. My grape Gatorade tasted like champagne. All of my friends had nice rides – Cassie and Coda brought home two blue ribbons, and Cloud and Remy were both much cooler on their second outings, and both turned in very good performances.  We all went home with ribbons that were either red or blue (except Christy, who rode HC but was thrilled that her green bean was awarded two 8s!) and once again, the horses all loaded and unloaded with minimal-to-no fuss.

Once back in the barn, Derby donned his bug gear, and he and Remy headed out to their paddock to roll and doze in the sun.  Christy, Brittany, Liz and I went and grabbed lunch, recounting our successes making future plans.  I’m just thrilled to bits with Derby and can’t wait for our next adventure.   What a fun day!

Good boy!

One week

Derby and I have been working really hard recently, and we stepped it up this week.  The quality of the work we’re doing has improved almost exponentially.  We have a long way to go, but progress is a great motivator.  I feel like we’re really starting to generate some quality movements, and I’m finally, finally starting to ride.  I’m not saying that we’re there.  Not at all.  But we’re better!

Six days ago:

Last night:

And a special thanks to Christy, who’s been tireless this week!