Core muscles, meet the half-halt

We had another nice ride last night, and another incremental improvement. In my lesson, I worked on getting Derby’s hind legs more active and pushing, rather than pulling himself along on the forehand. To do this, Christy introduced my core to my half-halt, and pretty quickly I was able to get the feel of rebalancing the horse.  It was one of those lightbulb moments in which you consciously do something, and feel the results.  Cause and effect – it’s powerful stuff.

Compare to yesterdsy's effort

Last night



Here’s a still from last night’s ride (pink t-shirt).  There’s a big difference in hind end engagement when compared to my ride the night before (blue saddle pad.)

The differences are subtle but clear visually – Derby is more up, off his forehand in the picture from last night, and he’s pushing more with his hind legs – you can see he’s stepping more forwardly with his hind legs, rather than trailing them behind (as he does when he’s on the forehand.)

The difference in feeling between the trots is more stark.  The connected trot last night feels so powerful.  The less-connected trot from last night just feels fast.

Christy had me work on channeling our forward energy and controlling it with my seat, core and half-halts.  One thing I have to work on is using the half halt correctly – to rebalance – rather than slow down.  I generally allow Derby to lose energy in the half halt.  And I remember what Robert Dover said about half-halts – they’re additive, you gather and coil the energy in the half halt.  Now, to put that into practice and make it a habit.

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 11.25.50 PMWith Christy coaching me about every other step of the way, I worked on half-halting with my core and then immediately putting my leg on to say “Go!” while increasing my post to get a bigger (not faster) stride.  And we were able to start to generate more of a trot – one that someday could be suspended and fancy.  We have a long way to go, though, in terms of fitness and muscling of both horse and rider.  Still, it will be fun to put a dressage neck on Derbs – he’s pretty burly as TBs go already and tends to carry heavy muscle. He’s a big handsome critter already but with good dressage muscling, my plain bay will be a standout!

Coiling power – learning to really half-halt

My half-halts are really quarter-halts.  I can use the half-halt to rebalance the horse, a bit, but my half-halts don’t add power.   So Christy has put us to work, retraining both of us to ride (and respond to) half halts properly,  which means focusing on generating, and then retaining and channeling, power.

The half-halts are instrumental in improving gait quality, because when done correctly, they engage the horse’s hind legs.   This is something I need to improve, so Christy set me to work on transitions, with the intention of developing my half halt.

We started out looking like this: pleasant, but not engaged.

Pleasant, but not engaged at all.

Doing transitions on a circle helped me get and maintain bend, while also starting to get a real feel for maintaining power through transitions.  Things started to improve.

More engagement. Derby is using his hind legs more actively. He’s still a bit on his forehand, though.

After quite a bit of work, we finally got the half-halt working the way Christy envisioned, producing our best work of the day, with Derby nicely connected over his back, off his forehand and moving with energy:

There’s a lot more work on this to do, but at least I’m starting to get a feel for a real half-halt, not the energy-draining downshift I had been using.

Fix it — NOW

As you may imagine, I’m pretty happy that Derbs didn’t need surgery after all.  While I would never hesitate to put the horse first, nonetheless, I’m really glad that we’re not heading into weeks of stall rest – especially as others are prepping for a schooling show at Silverwood in early May!

I really dialed things back pre-surgery, figuring that if he was going to be stallbound for a while, it would be better to not ramp up his fitness levels immediately prior to the time off.  So we did easy rides.  Now, however, it’s officially go time.  We need to balance getting to work with not over-doing things.

Yesterday was a gorgeous day, and I took the afternoon off to deal with the logistics of returning Derby to Silver Fern, and to hang out and enjoy the day.  I watched Christy take Remy for a spin while Derby had some turn out time, then I brought him in and tacked up.   I decided to try using my Perfect Balance saddle pad with the new, thinner inserts I had purchased recently, but after about 15 minutes of really crappy work with no forward, I hopped off and put my old fleece pad on, and took Derby outside.

Things improved but by that time we were full on into feeding time – the other horses were being brought in, everyone was calling to everyone, and the parking lot was filling up.  It turned into a good test of my ability to deal with a distracted horse.

In my lessons, whenever Derby catches me out and pops his nose up, inverts or lets a shoulder bulge, Christy is on my case, insisting that I “Fix that! Fix it now!”  I practiced “fixing it” with Derby, getting busy with my inside leg, and really concentrating on not restricting him with unyielding hands.  It took some doing but eventually I had a much more pliant horse, and got some decent trot going both directions.

Tonight I had lesson, and things went pretty well as we warmed up.  As we got going. Christy started to ask me to “fix” certain things.  Get a decent trot. Make him rounder.  Add more bend in the corners.  Get those back legs going!   I knew I had to up the ante on the quality, so I went back to a key lesson from the Dover clinic last year.  Every corner is an opportunity to half halt and rebalance.

Going into the short side, I half-halted, applied inside leg, softening the inside rein while making sure not to throw the outside rein away.  “Better, that’s better…” the boss commented, as I held a smaller trot gait down the short side, half halting again before the corner, then adding bend.  “That looks good!” was the ensuing comment.

Derby started to run out of gas as we did some circles, so Christy asked for a canter to see if it would wake him up.  I sat, and asked, and happily, the canter quality was decent, my lower leg stayed still and when we transitioned downward, we had some nice trot.  A few minutes later, we did it again, then switched directions. I was really happy that we got the right lead correctly both times (that had been a little sticky for us) and that over all, my position was decent.  I’m glad that’s not fallen apart in the time off!

We’re doing another lesson tomorrow, and I’m going to try to get out to the barn early on Friday morning for a ride, before taking the next two days off.  I’m just so glad be riding, versus nursing a bored, ouchy, stall-bound pony!




Not really sure how this is possible …

Tonight’s ride was a joy.  Derby just feels amazing.  From the first step away from the mounting block I had a really nice, rolling walk.  Derby was also eager to get going, and moved out beautifully at the trot.  We had a nice connection and really good adjustability – my half-halts went through without question, and I could feel Derby bring his back up and step under himself.  He was light and responsive and powerful and forward and, at moments, nicely through.

Christy was really happy with how he was going, too, and while she noticed a few weaknesses in my position (due to being out of shape and losing my riding muscles) so she wanted me to trot til I was pooped, which is what we did. Over all, I’m pretty happy with how decent I feel, despite being out of shape.

I’m not sure how it’s possible that we’re going this well despite all our time off, but I’m not complaining. Next up, another lesson tomorrow.

Managing details

Today Derby and I worked for about 40 minutes, still focusing on trot work, and still sticking to the compacted footing on the rail.   That limited my ability to do much, so I focused on doing quality work, as simple as it was.  This meant good upward transitions that were crisp while keeping the horse on the bit, working in a quality trot, with the horse round and forward, and solid downward transitions, at the letter and maintaining quality. Essentially, I worked on managing the details, which is a crucial aspect of riding a good test.

I also focused on another important detail, which was steadying my lower legs, by keeping the majority of my weight on my thighs – not on the balls of my feet, or on my butt.   Until I keep that lower leg steady, I’m not allowing myself to wear spurs – when my leg is loose, I inadvertently spur the horse, and even though I use short, rounded, gentle spurs, the last thing I want to do is deaden the horse to my aids.  Even more importantly, I need to have control over my lower leg if I’m going to deliver aids with any sort of precision. I started out in two-point, did some stand-stand-post-post to feel my leg steadying, and then paid attention to where my weight was resting while I posted. I was rewarded with an easy, forward trot from Derby, who is very inclined to peter out as soon as I fall out of my balanced seat.

We get to recommence lessons tomorrow night. I’m glad we’re back to work!

We’re back!

I hopped on Derbs for our first ride since late December, and he felt great. I took it easy – he’s had more than two weeks off, which followed a really spotty riding schedule during the holidays.  We worked for about 25 minutes, but had a good ride nonetheless.

As we warmed up walking, I tested whether or not Derby was still responding to my seat.  As we worked some serpentines and shoulders-in, the contact got stronger and steadier, and we had nice walk cadence.

Moving into the trot I stayed on the rail, where the footing is more compacted.  Derby’s heel bulb is still tender, and  deep footing puts pressure on the sore spot.  I wrapped the heel before riding, and he didn’t take a bad step – but still, I was careful.

I woke up my riding muscles with a couple laps in two-point, and then alternated standing two beats, and posting two beats.  That exercise reinforces my balance and helps steady my lower leg.  Because we weren’t doing anything off the rail, I simply did some half halts into a smaller gait, and then asked for more trot down the long sides. I wasn’t wearing spurs or carrying a whip, but Derby complied willingly.

As we finished up, I dropped my stirrups and worked on transitions to halt, half halting and holding my core as we halted to invite Derby to stay on the bit and round.

His back was up and the contact felt really good.  We’ll do a bit more work tomorrow, and will have a lesson on Monday. Yay!

Tightening the screws

Christy has figured out an important fix to my position, and we’re working on developing my muscle memory for keeping my core really engaged, my legs softly back, my calves gently against the horse, my knees relaxed, my hips angles open and swinging and my leg long and draping.   I’m definitely in the “hard’ phase of the “Hard, Easy, Habit, Beautiful” progression described by George Morris. It’s worth it, though.  When I do manage to balance myself and get my knees off the saddle blocks, Derby’s gaits improve dramatically.

We might have been happy with this moment a month ago, but not now.

Tonight Christy upped the ante on me a bit, asking me to hold my contact and really push the horse into the bridle from behind, creating more uphill movement.  In doing this she took dead aim at a bad habit of mine – I tend to give the reins when the horse pulls into contact, and I wind up dumping him on his forehand.

Here’s a stellar example:  You can see clearly here how I’ve totally pushed my shoulders forward and straightened my arms, so even though my fingers are closed, I’ve given him a ton of rein.  Derby has eagerly accepted, and has gone onto his forehand.

So while the trot quality is nice and the contact is solid, I’m failing miserably here to give Derbs the support he’s seeking, and I’m losing the opportunity to gather power an energy when I give away the reins like this.

Correcting ourselves and getting the horse off his forehand

At this point, Christy was most likely howling “Hold your reins! PIN YOUR ELBOWS TO YOUR SIDE!”     I scrambled to put things back together.  First, I half-halted,  bringing my elbows back to where they belonged as I rebalanced the tolerant creature beneath me.   I sat myself up straighter, and opened my hip angles, and started to lengthen my legs again by dropping my knees.  You can see how the changes I made in about 3 strides have improved Derby’s carriage.

Once I had fixed the big issues, I was able to ask Derby to move forward, while (this time!) holding the dang contact. I’m still struggling with staying straight (and keeping the hip angles open) as you can see, but overall, the balance was much better and I finally, finally, finally got him fully connected, producing the nice moment you see at the very top of this post.

It’s the most amazing feeling, and gives me hope for our future in the ring!