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!

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!

Bit by bit by bit

Almost square at the halt. Almost.

Tonight I rode one of the tests for the first time, and my first run-through illustrated perfectly (for me at least) the purpose of the tests, namely, testing the rider’s abilities to execute a series of movements – many of which complement each other – smoothly and in an organized and deliberate fashion.

Do you hear that, Self?  Organized and deliberate.

While we had a few decent moments, the downward transitions were a bit of a mess.  Okay, “bit of a mess” is being generous.   They were fifty kinds of ugly, truth be told.

I’m sitting here reviewing my videos (thank you again, Christy, for being so adept at grabbing video as you teach!) and I just discovered a key problem.  My transitions are too abrupt.  I’m not thinking “smaller trot, now smaller, now smaller still, walk!” as I go into the transitions.  And by smaller trot, I mean *half halt* half halt*half halt.  This sequence shows what happens when I transition too abuptly.   Here goes:

Going into the ugly tranistion. Our trot isn't terrible though he could be rounder and more active. But for us at the moment, this is far from our worst.

The ugly transition, in progress. I've started to halt,with no half halts or core engagement to be seen, and I've given Derby about 5 miles of rein.

 Lovely. But wait.  There’s more.

Full on ugly. Gaping mouth, hollow back, and he's on his forehand.Yuck!

How to rectify ugly? Hold the reins and get busy with your inside leg - at least, you can see this approach starting to work for me here.

In literally the next few milliseconds, Derby's back is up, and his mouth is closed. Cue Heavenly host strumming on harps.

Okay, so that save is nice but it doesn’t do much for me in a test, where transitions are scored.  I’m sending a link to this post to Christy and I am sure we’re going to drill this tomorrow.

There were some bright spots in tonight’s ride.  I got some of the nicest trot to date from Derby.  His back was way up, and it felt wonderful.  All of our current problems can be laid squarely on my doorstep.  Derby is a sweet, willing horse and tries hard.   I like him more and more each day and am really looking forward to our journey together!

Two rides, two results.

I had two rides on Oliver recently – one on Saturday, and one tonight.  On Saturday he was unfocused and a bit tense, but I did very cruelly ride him right as the other horses were being brought in and fed, and Oliver registered his discontent by doing his best to ignore me, calling to other horses, and keeping his ears forward, pointedly not listening to me.  He was a little squirrely at the beginning of the ride, but I put him straight to work, and we ended up having a decent ride, but  he never truly relaxed for me.  Despite his total unhappiness with my delaying his dinner, we did book one important accomplishment –  I got him to spiral in and out, at the walk, in both directions.  He’s beginning to understand leg aids, and best of all, I was able to get him to move alway from my right leg when circling right.  So that was a definite win.

Tonight I showed up after dinner, and Oliver was back to his mellow self.  We had a very nice ride, and worked on a number of things.  First, as we warmed up, I worked on steering correctly – from inside leg and outside rein.  He’s not perfect, but he improves with each ride.  I rode shallow serpentines and figure-8’s and at the end of the warm up, he was turning nicely for me.  I went back to this exercise mid-ride during a walk break, and also got  good responses.  This is good progress.

We also did quite a bit of work trotting.  I had my spurs on tonight, and warmed up carefully, working on keeping my leg in position with my toes forward, and my foot at the girth, not curled back.  I did the balancing exercises that Christy has me working on, and was pleased to find that Oliver held a pretty steady rhythm for a change, and he is also accepting more contact from me, and stays relaxed.  This is also some nice progress.  He used to bear down and speed up whenever his rider touched his mouth.

However, I noticed that as we worked, he started to speed up randomly, often at a moment when I was giving him little or no real input.  Ha!  Busted! I think he uses speeding up as an evasion, so whenever he did that, I sent him forward and kept him there.  We just got a couple loads of sand in the arena, and the footing is deeper – and takes more work.  He started to tire and wanted to slow down, but I kept him moving forward to make the point that the human – not the horse – sets the tempo.  We did more serpentines and figure-8s while trotting, and lo and behold, the evasions stopped once he was convinced that I was paying attention.

We finished up the ride working on transitions.  His downward transition in particular isn’t as crisp as I’d like to see – he really needs to transition from the seat.  I started by saying “whoa” while giving him a big half halt with my seat, and closing my fingers on the reins, which increased the contact.  Gradually, as he got the hang of it, I dropped the “whoa,” and for the last few, I was *almost* able to abandon the reins. Almost but not quite.  However, he made good progress, and I could feel him stepping nicely under himself when I half-halted him, which is exactly the correct response to this important aid.  Good boy, Oliver!

We finished up working on relaxing and stretching. He is hard (for me at least) to stretch, and he’s still not working over his back enough to speak of – getting him to stretch into the bit is the next thing on my mental to-do list for Oliver, behind relaxing, building the strength to move rhythmically and steering correctly. At this point, I’m happy if I can get him to stretch into a decent working walk – on my terms and at my invitation. He likes stretching, but does it on his own, almost rooting (and makes  me wonder at times if he’s using this unbidden behavior to evade.)  He relaxed, and stretched a bit, and then halted promptly from my seat.  He earned his cookies tonight!