Humpty Dumpty Learns to Ride

Some nice trot work with Oliver

I was channeling Humpty Dumpty last night during my lesson on Oliver, and Christy had to work hard to put me back together again. But she got the job done, and Oliver produced some very nice moments, stretching into contact while almost tracking up, and starting to work over his back.

A key contributing factor to my issues last night was the saddle.  Just for fun, I rode in a Stubben Romanus – an old one.  It’s the opposite of the saddle I’m used to (a Wintec Isabell). Instead of a deep seat covered in grippy suede, this old Romanus was slick leather, with a much shallower seat.  And instead of air-filled panels, the Romanus panels feel like they’re foam-lined and filled with wool flocking.  They’re soft, and solid, and lack the shock-absorbing quality of the Isabell.

Christy’s new saddle is also wool-flocked, and she says she can feel a lot more movement in it than in her old Isabell.  I tease Christy about being the Princess and the Pea – she feels so much more than I do in the saddle.  I think she could read Braille with her butt, frankly.  The same cannot be said of me, but riding Oliver – who I’m getting to know fairly well – in the Romanus was an entirely different experience that my usual ride.  All of a sudden, I was being bounced out of the saddle at the trot.  And while Oliver has nice, solid gaits, he doesn’t produce a lot of suspension. (Yet!)  His trot is pretty flat.  I wasn’t prepared for this feeling and had to spend some time finding my balance.

Finally – with constant adjustments and encouragements coming from Christy – I started to get it together, and regained some semblance of independent hands which had left me entirely at the beginning of the ride.  Humpty Dumpty was patched up.

Something else that helped me get it together was asking Oliver to move forward.  This helped me in two ways.  First, once I got him going forward – and I was keeping him there – his rhythm improved – a lot.  If I let him go at his own pace, he speeds up, then slows down, and then spurts forward again.  Keeping him going forward is easier to ride because it cuts down on the variability in speed – and that variability makes it hard to stay balanced.  Secondly, the more forward, proper working trot is easier to ride from a balance standpoint. It’s easier to ride when you can use the momentum of the horse’s gaits in your favor.

Once I started to resemble someone with a bit of training rather than a sack of potatoes, Christy had me work on inviting Oliver to really stretch into contact, something that has been on my to-do list for a while, but I’ve not made much progress in this area.  She quickly diagnosed the problem – I’ve not been giving enough with my hands.

We’ve discussed “giving hands” before, which is another way to describe following contact, which allows the horse to stretch forward, and can also reward the horse with a decrease in rein pressure for the correct behavior.   I commented that Oliver’s unsteadiness in the bridle made it harder for me to give at the right time.
“And that’s why it’s even more important!” was Christy’s response. And she’s right, of course.  Oliver is new to dressage, and prior to Steph’s purchasing him, he was ridden in  a leverage bit with a tie down. He’ll never learn to go correctly into contact if he doesn’t get good guidance from the person on his back.  I redoubled my efforts, trying to keep my hands quiet and the contact steady.  Christy reminded me to activate my inside leg, using the spur when necessary to enage Oliver’s inside hind.

“Ride the back end, and leave the front end alone,” Christy suggested.  I envisioned side reins, and concentrated on simply holding steady contact on the reins – not messing around with softening or opening or asking for give.  I focused solely on keeping the contact quiet and holding on to the outside rein, and got busy with my leg aids.

The improvement was almost immediate.  I turned my heel inward, applied a little spur pressure, Oliver stepped neatly aside with his hind leg and his neck lengthened.

“Give give give give GIVE!” Christy commanded. “Again!”   We repeated the exercise, and I finally reacted quickly enough to get a nice stretch into contact for a few strides, after which I stopped riding, whereupon he hollowed his back and popped his head up.  You really do need to ride every stride.  We repeated the process several times, going each way.  At the end of the ride, we were both sweaty and puffing.

Oliver is figuring this out – and it gets easier as the horse develops strength and self-carriage. Oliver is just beginning to develop the new muscles necessary to carry himself correctly.   It’s fun and challenging to work through these moments with him, and he’s such a pleasant horse to work with.  It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him develop!

Green horse, grey horse.

I got a real lesson in contrasts today, riding Oliver and Frank.  Both are total loves, and both are Thoroughbred geldings, but the similarities end there. Oliver is a green bean, but Frank knows more about dressage than me, having been trained to Second Level.

I rode Oliver first, and was hoping that I’d have a better ride than I did yesterday.  Oliver was hell-bent on testing me on Saturday, acting spooky and distracted, possibly because he had a little extra energy since the horses were stuck inside due to some awful weather.  I spent a lot of time growling at him, and it took a while for him to settle so we could really work.  Because he was being silly, I elected to get and keep his attention by doing lots of transitions and changes of direction.   In addition to being silly, Oliver also tried to convince me that he had forgotten everything he knew about transitions downward from my seat. Instead of responding to my half-halts by starting to bring his back up and stepping under himself – as he had been doing sooo nicely last weekend – yesterday he was ignoring the half halt – and the fact that my butt was planted in the saddle – and barreling on.

That would not do.

We did walk/halts (while spiraling in and out) until I got the crisp response I’d been seeking.  Then we moved back into trotting.  I started out just going down the rail, but wasn’t getting a satisfactory response.  Oliver had what Steph calls “OMG ears” and was actively looking for reasons to spook .   So I started riding figure 8’s – little ones at one end of the arena, and then larger ones, and then long flat ones, bisecting the arena down the centerline.

Things got better immediately, because I was keeping Oliver focused on me.  We worked on walk/trot/walk/trot transitions and he did pretty well.

Today was a different story.  Oliver was a total star.  We had our best trot work to date – I got him to move out, and we successfully completed laps of the arena trotting nicely both ways.  He was relaxed and just rolled along.  I also asked him more insistently to reach down, and while I wouldn’t say that he was round, he wasn’t wildly inverted.  I was proud of Oliver, and told him so!

We also had some very nice transitions from my seat, from trot to walk, and from walk to halt.  We worked on those while we also worked on steering – around the mounting block, figure-8s all over the place, you name it – and Oliver was a champ.  I was so pleased with him today!  I rewarded him with a hand grazing session (on top of lots of cookies) before I turned him back out to lounge in the sun.

After gulping some water, I went and fetched Frank.  My old buddy was feeling really good today, and surprised me by starting out at a smart pace when I picked up the trot after we warmed up.  I let him roll, hopping into two-point and getting a feel for this different feeling gait.  It has a lot more motion than the jog Frank offers when he’s feeling creaky.  He was getting a little strung out, so I decided it was time to help him out.  I started posting, took a feel on his mouth … and discovered that he wasn’t going to give it to me.  If I wanted Frank to round, he was going to make me work for it.

I was posting out of a half-seat, to stay off his back, and I increased my post, to make more “room” for a bigger stride.  I also got busy with my inside leg, engaging my core and making a point of holding my outside rein and asking Frank to soften with the inside rein.  Within a few strides, I got results.  Frank took the contact, stretched, and the trot started to feel a lot better. I tested my contact by seeing if Frank would follow my contact downward – if he didn’t, that would tell me that he was just going around with a fake headset. I invited a stretch, and got it.  I had true contact. Yay!  I could feel myself holding him between the inside leg and my outside rein. It’s been a looong time since I felt that!

This was the first ride in a log time I that I had generated proper contact.  As we went around the short side, I decided to throw in a circle to give another rider some room to maneuver.  And at that point, I got busted by the former school horse, who didn’t feel I was using my inside leg sufficiently, and ignored my inadequate request to do a 20 meter circle.  Crap!

I gathered myself and asked for another circle as we approached A.  it was ugly, because I forgot to close my fingers around the outside rein as I applied my inside leg (with more vigor this time.) Frank waggled his ears at me (I swear he did!) as he popped his outside shoulder out. Crap!

I sat myself up, made sure my feet were indeed where they belonged (at the girth, not curled back to Frank’s flanks) , held that damn outside rein, turned my left toe outward and deliberately applied my spur while also giving Frank a tap tap with my whip.   I got the “yes ma’am” response I sought, and we circled nicely, with decent contact and a quality trot.

We went down the long side, and as we headed into the short side, I gave Frank a little half-halt, to bring him more into hand.  We kept the little trot long the short side, then took a diagonal, which went quite well, since I 1) half-halted again down the short side and 2) looked where I wanted to go and 3) actually balanced the horse between my inside leg and outside rein, for a change.

We did another nice circle at C, with no shoulder popping or ear-waggling.  And then another down the long side for good measure.

I was panting and sweating – partially because I was dressed a bit too heavily, and partly because I’m in horrific shape after having been sick on and off for months.  But it felt great to really ride, even if Frank was channeling Christy and busting me when I got sloppy.  We cooled out, and then went to graze.

Two totally different horses, two totally different rides, and a completely satisfying day!

I meant to do that. Really!

Chatting with my new buddy Chester, after our dramatic ride tonight

Today was an interesting day, to say the least, and it ended with the unscheduled completion of one of my greatest riding accomplishments to date.

Since I’m currently horseless, I’m hustling for rides, and was offered the chance to try a cute TB gelding named Chester.  He’s a big boy – he has to be every bit of 17H – and is a gentle puppy dog.    Despite the stormy weather, I saddled up, and joined Christy in the arena, where she was riding her green bean, Remy.

The ride started out uneventfully but that changed in a heartbeat when a loud clap of thunder scared both geldings out of their wits.  Chester bolted, and I was able to ride it, saying whoa, and pulling and releasing the reins.  However, I realized that he wasn’t whoa-ing.  It was time for plan B.

It’s interesting how your mental processes kick into overdrive in times of stress. It feels like you’re living in a slow motion film. I for one am a huge fan of this aspect of the human brain.  The ability to think in a fast moving crisis has saved my butt more than once, tonight included.

And, I’ll tell you, a bolting OTTB with a fast approaching wall in one direction and an oncoming (also bolting) horse in the other fits my definition of a fast moving crisis situation.

So, saying “whoa” and asking him to slow down wasn’t working.  I grabbed some mane and thought about bailing.  Then I caught sight of Remy heading in our direction.  Yep, it was time to bail.  At that moment, the horse I was riding swerved, just as I started to lean forward and kick my feet out of the stirrups.  At this point, my hands were on the horse’s shoulders, and I pushed up …. and off … swinging my right leg over …. and ….

…landed – not in a heap or spattered on the wall, but squarely on my two feet, with the reins in my hand!

I’m pretty sure I shouted “YES!” and fist pumped, before realizing that as relieved as I was, my mount was still freaking out.

Wasting no more time but beaming like a lunatic, I quickly took my skittery steed to to an open stall, cooing to him while I unbuckled the bridle.  He settled down, exhaled, then started nosing around for bits of hay.  Christy had also made it safely back into the aisle after safely getting off her big red whirlwind, who was now standing in his stall, shaking.

“That was a legitimate spook,” she said.  “Any horse – Liam, Frankie, Atlanta – would have spooked at that thunder,” she added, unnecessarily.  I told her that I felt great, I was thrilled to bits that I had executed my first emergency bail. (Read her account of riding during the storm.)
As she soothed Remy, Christy told me that she was proud of both horses.  “They took us with them,” she said, noting that while both had taken off, neither had gone bronco on us – no bucking, rearing, twisting.  They didn’t dump us.    Both of us were able to dismount safely.  Christy has talked about this before – a horse that takes you along when it spooks – and now I understand what she means.  And I agree, it’s a good thing.

Hard, easy, habit, beautiful

George Morris’ voice is still ringing in my head from Sunday’s clinic. One thing he said that really resonated with me was this: “The first time you do anything, it’s difficult. Eventually it becomes easy. Then it becomes habit. Finally, it becomes beautiful.”

I’m clinging to those words now because I’m in the process of making some adjustments to my seat, and building the requisite muscle memory.  The changes are hard for me – I’m working on rolling my legs inward from the hip – stretching through my hip flexors – to allow my leg to lay more fully and correctly against the horse.  My habit – and conformation – make this difficult.  It’s easy for me to roll my whole leg outward, knees and heels together, toes pointing 180 degrees apart, like a ballerina in first position. Unfortunately, I do not aspire to be a ballerina.

So I’ve been working on opening my hip flexors, and rolling them inward, which (should) also press my knees into my saddle blocks, and bring my toes forward.
Ah.  My toes. Woe is my toes.  Left to my own devices, I’d let them flop out, like a car with its doors hanging open, the back of my heel bumping against the horse.  Too bad that looks seriously ugly, and doesn’t work well when wearing spurs.  You see my problem.

So right now, I’m doing a few things.  I’m spending more time in two point, and I’m dropping my stirrups at the walk, both of which help me align the hips-knees-ankles and sink into my heel.  I have to say, however, it feels like hell now, even when Christy pipes her approval from the middle of the ring.  My muscles are on fire.  My flexors, they’re a-flexin’.  And the whole thing feels discombobulated to me.

Hard, easy, habit, beautiful.  Right now, this is hard.   Boo.

I did have a nice little piece of encouragement last night, though. I got on a friend’s horse who was a little to fresh for her tastes. He’s green, and wanted to go around with his head up, braced against the bit.  I had flashbacks to riding Jag as I was just re-learning to ride, before either of us had any sort of dressage training.  I dug around in my video archives and yep, sure enough, found some video of a braced, inverted trot.  Nice.

So, back to last night.  I’m a better rider than I was lo those three years ago (thank you Jesus, and Christy) and immediately took a hold on that bracing mouth, and started to ask him to soften.  I pushed with my inside leg, into the outside rein, and even though this horse isn’t the best at bending, I got some decent bend and softening.  We worked a bit both directions, and then, at the walk, I focused on getting him to soften and relax.  He was a quick study, and started to figure it out by the end of our short ride.

I remember well the days when I wondered if I’d ever, ever, ever be able to bend a horse, or react quickly enough to give when the horse softened into the bit.  It seemed sooo hard when I first started working on those skills.  Last night, I realized that those have become habit.  They are not beautiful (yet) but they are habit.  Bending and softening and using the outside rein are built into how I ride.  That gives me hope – much needed right now when things feel so awful!