Puzzle pieces

He *can* stretch down and out.

Finally.  Finally finally finally.  We had a really decent ride today, following a nice effort yesterday.   Things are starting to come back together, and I’m relieved.

When we started picking at my position a couple weeks ago, one of the things I was struggling with was getting Derby to move forward beyond a sluggish trot.  Christy theorized that my closed hip angle was actually sending Derby “whoa” signals, even as I was asking for “go.”   As we worked on my position, Derby started moving out when the situation up on his back improved.  That was great but those moments were fleeting.

The good news is that things are definitely better.  Yesterday we had a very nice ride.  Derby was a lot more forward and I worked hard on staying balanced, especially as I circle to the right, since I’ve noticed that I tend to collapse to the right, causing Derby to lean inward.  I rode lots of patterns. paying attention to my balance, position and aids going left, and then maintaining those going to the right.   The quality of Derby’s trot and our balance through the turns improved.


This long German dressage term doesn’t have an exact English translation.  It means looseness, but with suppleness, energy and throughness.  It’s hard to describe in words, but I see it now when I watch Christy ride Remy, or when she lets Liam stretch after they’ve been working.  The horses go forward with enthusiasm, but with balance.  They are on Christy’s aids, and work beautifully over their backs.  I want to do that.  And today, we came close.

With images of Christy’s recent beautiful rides on Remy fixed in my mind, I mounted up today, determined to build on my good ride yesterday.  Right off the bat, I had a really nice, swingy walk.  Derby was marching along with purpose and energy.  After walking around on the buckle, I  gathered up the reins and started to work on suppling.  We flexed left, flexed right and did some shallow serpentines. The contact improved, at least it felt like it did, so I decided to check.  Turning onto a long diagonal, I fed Derby some additional rein, and he stretched nicely.  I sponged the outside rein, and pushed with my inside seatbone.  He stretched a bit more.  This was a real improvement.

Circling right, I asked Derby to trot, and got a prompt response, and a decent trot. I repeated some of the suppling exercises we did at the walk.  The contact improved even more,  as did Derby’s trot.   Taking advantage of the much-improved and steady contact, I decided to work on adjustablity within the trot.  Heading into a turn on the short side, I half halted, and asked Derby to hold a smaller trot, and he did.  Turning onto the long side, I kept the contact, and increased my my post. Derby responded hugely, stepping out into a really solid, forward, ground-covering trot, pushing from behind.  I half halted into the next corner, and felt his back really come up.  Down the next long side, his trot increased in power.    For fun, we did some nice shoulder in, and Derby responded easily and willingly.

I was thrilled. Around we went, changing directions, getting quality and power both ways.  We repeated the shoulder in.  Derby’s back was up, and it felt great. so I fed him a bit more rein produce a stretch as we trotted.  I did dump him onto his forehand, but I sat up, half-halted, and we recovered.

This was, by far, the best ride I’ve had on Derby to date.  I think Christy really nailed it when she spotted the fact that my old position was blocking Derby’s forward gears.  I’m excited for my lesson tomorrow night to show the boss what we’ve found!

Farewell, Fondly.

The big pretty mare

I’m a firm believer in the adages, “When one door shuts, another opens,” and “Things happen for a reason.”

When my travel schedule ramped up in February, disrupting my riding routine with Maddie, she didn’t take it well.  She became a challenge to for me handle, on the ground and – uncharacteristically – under saddle.  Christy wondered aloud whether or not Mads was the good fit we had thought she was for the last few months.

A couple weeks ago, things came to a head when Maddie was flat out naughty, and dumped me during a lesson.  Unhurt but enraged, I got back on, and (I’m told) had the best ride of my life. However, it wasn’t fun, and afterward, Christy and I had a talk, ultimately agreeing that a horse that was better able to handle disruptions to the routine would be a better (and safer) option for me.

Shortly thereafter, Christy was chatting with Maddie’s former owner, Cassie, and told her that Mads would soon be for sale.  She forwarded some of the pictures and video you saw in the “Fancy Filly” post.  Fortuitously, Cassie knew of a talented eventer looking for a good horse.  She thought the two might click.  A call was made, and Heather came to see Mads and give her a try.

I was out of town and didn’t the two together, but I’m told that Heather rode Maddie absolutely beautifully.  Some emails and phone calls between Christy and Heather ensued, and on Sunday, Maddie went home with Heather for good.

Christy mentioned afterward that the two looked so good together that we’re probably going to regret selling Maddie.  Fact is, I already do. I regret not being the confident and assertive rider that can get the most out of a horse like Maddie.  That said, I don’t regret making the decision that I was overfaced, and admitting that I need a more sedate partner.  The reactivity that makes Maddie potentially brilliant is just too much for me, and I don’t mind admitting it.  I’ve seen people riding too much horse, and I’ve know women who suffered horrific injuries because they simply couldn’t safely ride the horses they owned.  I’m grateful to Christy for watching out for me, and selflessly suggesting that it was time to sell the horse (I was the only one riding her.) It had to have been tempting to try to keep the mare – she’s wicked fancy and could have been a great addition to the show team – and to keep trying on us.  In the short term, this might not look like a good business decision for Christy.  However, she’s cemented my loyalty, and I’m hoping that a new pony that I can lease and ride arrives soon.

Best of all Mads has a fantastic home. I think she’s going to love learning to jump, and I can’t wait to go see Heather and Maddie at a show.  I’ll miss the big girl, to be sure, but  I’m happy for Mads, and for Heather, who I suspect is thrilled to bits with her new mare.

Things happen for a reason.  This was one of the easiest horse sales ever – the planets were aligned. So, it leaves me looking at a few closed doors. I’m not sure what’s behind them, but we’ll find out soon enough!

Leg yields, finally.

A step of leg yield! Notice how Maddie's inside hind is stepping inside the track of her inside fore.

For tonight’s lesson, I asked Christy to pick up where we left off yesterday – I wanted to focus on continuing to hone the mare’s responsiveness.  But first, we had to work through a pronounced reappearance of my bad habit of giving away one rein while hanging onto another.   So first, we went back to steering with the outside rein, while giving with the inside rein – but giving by moving my arm forward, rather than letting the rein slip through my fingers.  Christy had me imagine that I was holding a crop with my thumbs, and keeping my hands even, rather than letting one creep back near my hips.  That trick worked well.

So we moved onto lateral work.  I’m happy to report that last night wasn’t a fluke!  I put the mare to work, keeping off the rail and making deliberate turns, keeping her connected to the outside rein, and then yielding out on a circle. Once again, we had some nice moments, and the mare was pretty (though not perfectly) responsive.  However, she was responsive enough, and I was a little jelly-legged after a mid-lesson bolting spook that I was able to somehow ride.

This isn’t a pretty picture, but you can see that her back has come way up, and that she’s stepping inside with her right hind.

We worked in both directions, and got some particularly nice work going left. Again, we started on a circle, and spiraled in and out, taking a step or two of leg yield as we spiraled away from the center.

I decided to see if I could keep it together down the quarter line:

Mission to leg yield accomplished!

I still need to work on her responsiveness – but I feel like we’re headed in the right direction after these rides.  Progress is motivating!

The sharper the knife, the less you cry

Cooks have a saying:  the sharper the knife, the less you cry.  Sharp knives are easier to handle and less dangerous than dull blades – they slice effortlessly through veggies and meat.  A dull knife, on the other hand, is more dangerous, because it requires more effort of the user to achieve the desired effect.  And like a sharp knife is easier to use, a responsive horse is easier to ride effectively.

This saying came to mind tonight as I was leading Maddie back to the barn after a lesson, and grinning like a fool because it had been a good ride.    I told Christy that I wanted to work on my lower leg aids, namely, my ability to use my spurs accurately. I had strapped them on last night for the first time in months, and some irritated behaviors from the mare told me that I had inadvertently banged her with them a couple times. While my leg position is much improved, I still revert to my old  “toes out” posture when I get tired.   Developing awareness and acuity with the spurs requires me to continue to improve my leg position and stability.

So as I warmed up, I practiced deliberately putting my lower leg on,  releasing, putting my spur on and releasing.  However, as I did this I wasn’t getting much of a response from the mare.  I was also having trouble dropping my heals and holding a good position – my hips were tight, and probably a bit tired from two strenuous rides yesterday, and my earlier ride today on Oliver.   After promising Christy that I’d continue to work on my flexibility and strength, I took the spurs off.

So the lesson changed course. As we worked on my leg position and aids, which were partly successful some of the time, Christy told me that I was reverting to my bad habit of curling my heel upward, sticking it in the horse’s side and leaving it there.  I focused on being more deliberate with my aids.

However, I wasn’t getting the response I was seeking.  Unsure of whether or not I was eliciting a response because I guess I forgot what a correct leg yield felt like, I asked Christy watch for response while I attempted to leg yield out on a circle.   I got a big  fat nothing. We talked about it a bit and I told Christy that I wanted the horse that I started riding last May.  Mads was so light and sensitive then, and would respond instantly to any aid.  And I’ve dulled her responses.

So we started working on redeveloping a response,  We started at the walk.  Christy asked me to back up any requests I made of the horse with the whip, but advised me to treat any response – a head toss, a break to trot or canter, as good and to praise it, and to ride it.  My first opportunity came quickly as Mads ignored me when I tightened my leg against her.  I gave her a little whack with the whip and she hopped into a trot.  “That’s fine,” Christy said, as I half-halted and brought Maddie back to a walk.  We repeated this a few times, and within a few minutes, we produced a nice little leg yield down the quarter line!

Christy had us move into a trot.  I got the mare moving in a nice forward gait with good contact.  I asked for a leg yield on a 20 meter circle, and didn’t get a satisfactory response.  I gave the mare a little swat, and she propped and swished her tail – and went strongly forward. “That’s fine,” Christy called to me. “You need to get her in front of your leg!”

We continued on the circle at an energetic and connected trot.  “You have her undivided attention now,” Christy said as we breezed around her.  And she was right.  The mare had one ear back on me, and was steady in the bridle. I asked for the leg yield again, and … Maddie floated outward.  There it was!   I was thrilled.

I went to change directions, and as we moved off in a trot, Christy asked me what I thought of the upward transition.  There was no denying it, it was pretty crappy.   We half-halted and walked, and I asked for the trot, reinforcing it with a tap of the whip.  The mare stepped off immediately.   This was better.  We tried it again, and I asked for more enthusiasm, by being a bit more emphatic with my leg aids, but not touching the whip.  She went straight forward, into contact, with no head shaking or nonsense.  “That’s good!”  said Christy, as I let the mare trot on.  “Now, how light can you make your aids, but still keep that immediate response?”

We walked, and after a minute, I closed my legs softly on the mare’s sides.  She struck off in a nice trot right on the spot.

This was a seminal lesson,and an empowering one.  I can fix my forwardness and responsiveness issues if I align my mental intent and my aids, and take care to reinforce my aids with whip or spurs if (and only if) necessary.  I was amazed at the progress we made in one short ride.  I can’t wait to get back in the saddle, and continue to hone and sharpen my aids, and Maddie’s responses.  One thing I need to remember though is to stay consistent.  To do otherwise is unfair to the horse.  I need to ride every transition crisply, encouraging and rewarding prompt response, and reinforcing my aids clearly when needed.

I’m beginning to understand

She's just so dang pretty.

I’m happy to report that I made good progress with respect to re-installing the forward gears in the mare.  Her motto tonight was “Ask and ye shall receive.”

Christy was in between lessons and gave me a few minutes’ coaching, and with her encouragement, we got there – in both directions.   And once I got the mare connected and over her back, following Christy’s instructions to leg yield out on the circle was surprisingly easy.

Getting to the good gait still a process for me.  Mads (and frankly, any horse) requires me to ask and ride correctly, but when I get my act together and my ducks in a row, and actually manage to ride the mare effectively, back to front – well, wow.  She gives me the most amazing gait, pushing powerfully from her hind end.  It feels entirely different from her trot when she’s less engaged.   When Mads is over her back and pushing with those hind quarters, the it feels like we have rocket boosters – you can really feel the oomph and thrust coming from those big muscles in her hiney. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re on a plane that’s barreling down the runway for take-off, when you feel those engines pushing the plane forward – you can feel that power behind you very specifically.   This is the trot that Christy calls “the trot that has a canter – or a walk – in it.”  That’s a good analogy, because in order to produce this gait, a few things need to be happening:

  • I’m pushing her into the outside rein – and holding that contact – with an active inside leg.
  • I’m driving her from behind, asking for more step.
  • I am softening the inside rein.
  • My posture is straight, my leg is long and draping, my shoulders are back – in other words, I’m sitting up and riding.
  • I’m inviting the bigger gait from my seat by posting further out of the saddle.
  • I’m using half-halts actively to encourage roundness and engagement of the hind end.
  • The contact is elastic – I’m holding it, but am also inviting the mare to go forward and maintain flexion.  However, I also have to “catch” the power coming over her back in the contact, creating a loop of power, balance and contact in which the rider supports the horse and encourages an even better gait.

What I’m beginning to understand is that this powerful, forward gait needs to be a constant state for us, not a fleeting occurance.   I’m sure that the well-ridden dressage horse is always in this forward state of mind, encouraged by a rider able to generate the power and maintain necessary balance. This was a light bulb moment for me .  This is what it means to truly ride forward.

More blogging! And riding!

Over the next week or so I’ll be riding my friend Stephanie’s horse while she’s on vacation.  She blogs over at Dressage Adventures, and I’m recording my rides on Oliver there.

A fresh start

I believe that Winston Churchill is credited with the saying, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”  Today was my first ride after a two week hiatus, and boy, it felt great.   It wasn’t an eventful or even particularly sophisticated ride.   But I am happy to report that my position is still solid, and I remember how to steer (with my inside leg and outside rein!)

I decided to capitalize on the time off by trying to erase the left-rein-hanging issues I’ve been having, hoping that the time off would also diminish learned responses from Maddie.   So, I made a very focused effort to stay.off.that.left.rein while also not giving away the right rein.   Going counterclockwise, I held that outside rein, kept my inside leg active, and made a point of giving the contact in the left rein continually.

Mads was clearly appreciative, stretching very nicely into contact.  I encouraged her, giving her rein and riding her in a lower frame (we both need to regain fitness), and we went around with nice contact, and more importantly, a marked lack of neck-bracing and rein-hanging.  Toward the end of the ride, I was really able to get her moving, adjusting her gait with half-halts, and alternately asking her for bigger and smaller strides.  Despite the time off, she did really well, bringing her back up and rounding very nicely.  I do love how sensitive this mare is, and wow, she really takes a half-halt well.

I’m looking forward to our ride tomorrow, and then am hoping to re-establish my routine this week, starting with a lesson on Monday.  However, the weather doesn’t look like it’s going to cooperate fully – we have another stretch of hellaciously cold weather coming mid-week.  My personal cut-off is 10 degrees – below that, I’m not interested in riding.  But those cold nights are good for groundwork, so we’ll likely have some un-mounted work on Tuesday.


Moment by moment

Cantering to the right

The last few days have been illuminating, starting on Thursday.  I didn’t ride on Thursday- work was catching up with me, and I had zero energy – so I gave my lesson to one of Christy’s other students, and she rode Maddie.  It has been a long time since I’ve seen Mads go and it was fun to watch – and revealing.    Mads went beautifully for H. and she didn’t hang on the left rein whatsoever.  That provided more conclusive proof that the issues with the left rein are operator error – and not the big mare’s fault.

So when I rode Saturday, I was resolved to practice what Christy had me work on during our most recent lesson – giving the left rein when bending or circling to the right, while being sure to hold that right (outside) rein.   I worked at it – somewhat fruitlessly – giving the inside rein, while trying to keep my hands even and avoid letting the right rein get longer – but my efforts didn’t produce the quality bending I was hoping to generate.

But then it happened.  I caught myself shifting my right shoulder forward – effectively giving the right rein away.  Eureka!  So now I know what my next personal project is – fixing my shoulder alignment.  A review of some recent videos provided additional confirmation. But at least I know what the underlying cause of my difficulties, so I can take aim at fixing the issue.

Today Steph and I headed out to the barn early, to beat the rush because we both wanted to work on some things with minimal distractions.  I wanted to work on making my transitions more crisp, and (of course) the rein balance info.  We warmed up stretching and bending, and I really focused on keeping my right shoulder back, even with my left, rather than letting it creep forward.  I did catch myself a couple times, but overall, I was pretty happy with the way things were going.

Mads gives me a nice "little trot," reducing the length of her stride, and bringing her back up, in response to my half halt

I took my nice bending and started to work on transitions, shifting from walk to trot to walk again, asking for a prompt response from the mare, while also keeping her round.  As we worked, I found I found I had a nicely forward horse and so I asked for the canter, and got a a decent upward transition.

It’s easy to look good on Mads – she has the nicest, most rhythmic canter and it’s fun to ride.  We haven’t worked much in this gait, and I need to work on swinging my hips, staying with (and influencing the gait.)  That’s on the list of things to do.

Mada has the nicest uphill canter. Now I just need to do a better job of riding it!

I was really happy with our short canter, and the downward transition was nice too.  I kept her at a trot after that canter, mixing up the pattern, because Mads sometimes does start to anticipate the canter, taking it upon herself to offer it freely at every subsequent upward transition.   So I redoubled the transitions, throwing in some halts, too.  As much as she wanted to hop ahead, Mads was very responsive to the half halt, and I liked the quality of the little trot she gave me, though I did have to work hard with my core to hold her there.

It was a satisfying ride, laying groundwork for the next set of skills I need to improve.

(Special shout out to Steph, thanks for taking all the video!)


These winter nights, when it’s dark and cold, are sometimes hard to face.  After a long day of work, the prospect of carousing around in the freezing dark sometimes doesn’t appeal.   I was feeling tired and sluggish this afternoon – and while I’m truly happy to be back in my riding routine, as the sun sank the prospect of the barn became daunting.

I pulled on breeches, wool socks, turtleneck and fleece, and ran out the door before my darkening mood could sink my plans.

Arriving at the barn, I hot-footed it across the cold parking lot, and into the not-much-warmer barn, teeth chattering.  I realized too late that I really should have added some long underwear to my evening’s attire.  As I hustled around, greeting the mare, setting her beet pulp and alfalfa cubes to soak and fetching my tack, I started to warm up.  Mads was standing by her door, ears pricked.  I pulled her out. scratched her jaw for a minute, and put her in the cross ties.

As I groomed and tacked up, I got warmer, and happier.  I slipped Mads a few extra mints – she seemed pretty happy with the proceedings too.   We went into the arena, and mounted up. From the get-go I had nice contact – none of the hanging-on-the-rein nonsense from last night.  We warmed up, stretching down, flexing right and left, doing a little shoulder fore and some serpentines.  We trotted off, and Mads was simply gorgeous.  Light and responsive, responding to my softening inside rein.  I hopped up into two point and let her cruise for a minute, while I stretched out my hip flexors.  Mads trotted on, ears flopping.

Picking up my post and the reins, we started doing some slightly more interesting work – circles and serpentines in varying directions and sizes.  Mads remained nicely round and on the bit.    We worked on transitions within the gait – I half halted and reduced my post going into the short side, not quite collecting, but asking (and getting) shorter strides and a nice connection.  Turning down the long side, I gave Mads a little cluck, and elevated my post.  Bam! There was my nice trot!  We rolled down the long sides, and she came right back to to me on the short sides.  Good mare!

I was thrilled, and, I’m sure, beaming.  My dark mood and lack of motivation had melted away like the last snow in spring.  It was joy, pure and simple.

At the end of our ride, we hustled back into the barn.  I dove into my coat, and put a heavy cooler on the slightly-steaming mare.  After I cleaned her up, we hung out in the aisle, both pleased with the other and enjoying each others’ company.


Got carrots?

There! That's the spot!

I like you too, Mads.

Finally, a special shout-out to my friend Liz, author of the Loving Cloud, blog, who is recovering from surgery.   Cloud misses you but wants you to know that he’s getting lots of attention, and things aren’t too bad.  Still, he’s like you to hurry back to the barn please.

You're not my Mom, but I see you have carrots. Let's talk.

A forward horse, and an unexpected gift

Maddie, giver of gifts.

As you know, I’ve been working on improving my position in the saddle.  To gear up for riding without stirrups at a pace faster than the walk, Christy’s had me working in the two point postion.  Correctly.   You see, until this week, when I hopped up into two point, I just lifted my tush out of the saddle and off I’d go.   Turns out this isn’t the right way to do it, as I discovered this week. There’s more to the two-point than simply tipping your butt up out of the saddle.

In my lesson yesterday, Christy had me working in two point.  And shortly after we started, I started complaining of nasty pain in my ankles.  The muscles in my lower legs were en fuego.   Which ain’t right.   So Christy suggested that I work on moving the stirrup around on my foot – forward, backward – while in two point.

I stopped what I was doing and looked at her like she had ten heads.

Move the stirrup around on my foot, while in two point? Yes, she said, pointing out that I should be carrying most of my weight on my inner thighs, not my feet.

All righty, then.

I started walking around, trying to figure it out.  Hands braced on the pommel, I posted while Mads walked, trying to get a feel for lifting myself from my thighs.  The mare was confused but tolerant, at times stopping when things got too wriggly, and turning her head to give me a long look, as if to ask “You OK up there?”    When I started to feel it, we picked up the trot.  My inital challenge was keeping Maddie moving – anytime I got too unsteady (in her opinion) she’d drop to a walk.  What good girl she is.

Finally, by the end of the ride, I got it.  We were trotting around, with my hiney out of the saddle,  and I was able to really lighten my foot in the stirrup, carrying my weight on my upper legs, not my feet.

Tonight, I was saddling up as Christy was getting going on her new boy, Remy.  It was close to feeding time, and , my girl Mads was antsy.   We got going, limbering up at the walk, while chitchatting with Christy.  Then it was time to work.  I hopped into two point, giving Mads plenty of rein to stretch.  Round we went.  My thighs were on fire.  I was doing it right.

Panting after a few laps, I decided to relieve the stress on my legs by posting.  I picked up more contact, and started shallow serpentines, bending Mads right and left from my seat.  Clearly, my aids are a little confusing, because Mads – who was already nice and forward – stepped into a right lead canter.

Crap! I didn’t ask for that, and I’ve always been told that you don’t let horses get away with decision-making.  I started to half halt her, when from the other end of the arena came the command, “RIDE IT!” Christy was keeping an eye on us, and I know better than to argue with her. Down my butt went into the saddle, and ’round we went.   We kept going until by mutual agreement we had had enough.

Afterward, Christy reminded me that part of riding entails riding the horse you have at the moment.  When the horse is forward and sensitive, you ride that that horse.  Don’t pick fights you can’t win. Set yourself up for success.

That nice little spontaneous canter was an unexpected gift from Mads – it was a fun confidence builder, and a reminder of the “ride the horse you have” rule.

A good ride!

We had a good lesson tonight, which saw another two firsts – we started to work in a slightly higher frame, raising Maddie’s poll.  And we also had the beginnings of a stretchy trot!  Things were good right out of the gate – it was chilly and Maddie was more forward from the get-go.   She felt great – light, responsive, and on the bit.  I love how supple she’s becoming – I can bend her gently while trotting simply by tightening one hip flexor.  This is useful, because it enables me to quickly flex her this way and that, while staying out of her mouth.   I can also bend her pretty quickly into the outside rein if I need to re-establish contact.

So things were looking good straight away. Even warming up, Mads was steady, even and enthusiastic, before I even asked for much.

Christy took advantage of the nicely forward horse, and we worked on adjusting within the gait, and especially on covering more ground with our “big” trot. We used the short sides to rebalance, using half halts to shorten Maddie’s stride.  Then, on the long side, Christy had me focus on increasing the scope of my post, working in a slight pause at the top of my post.  Doing so, according to Christy, gives the mare more time to cover ground. I think we’re getting close to an extension. Dare I hope?

Developing a reaching, ground covering trot

Christy also had me work on shortening my reins just a bit (I have a bad habit anyway of riding with them too long) and raising Maddie’s front end.  We’re not simply cranking her nose in – I’m working from my seat, and working to create a more uphill frame.   This was the first time in recorded history that we’ve looked this pretty:

Good mare!

Maddie fussed a bit as we worked uphill, and Christy advised me that I’ll need to pay attention to letting her stretch on my terms.  She also reminded me that this work is hard for Mads, who isn’t used to carrying herself this way.  I’m going to be taking more weight in the reins – and I’ll need to hold it.  And I’ll have to work more stretch work into our schooling, to reward and rest my hard working buddy. So, we started to practice stretching at the trot – again, something totally new.

This was a brilliant lesson, and a great confidence builder, moving me out of my comfort zone in terms of riding more forwardly, and in terms of stretching.  I was reminded of  another friend who when working on stretching her mare at the trot and canter was told to “be vulnerable.”  That’s certainly what it feels like to me… but that stretch work feels pretty good.