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.

Losgelassenheit

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!

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.

 

Multi-tasking

I was back in the saddle today, after a four day hiatus due to a business trip and subzero weather.  As I noted in my last post, I need to re-establish forward, and get Mads back in front of my leg.  At the same time, I need to work on fixing the crookedness that is causing me to hang on that left rein.

Except, maybe I shouldn’t work on the two at the same time.  Today’s ride was a bit ugly, because what I got was some nice forward work — and ugly resistance, as Mads braced her neck and popped her right shoulder out.   I did a couple laps to the left,  softening and releasing my left rein, and she softened nicely into my outside rein.  Which I made a point of holding.

But when we went back to doing circles and figure-8s, I had trouble with the steering (!) and, over all, she was resistant to the left. However, the quality of our work improved when we did serpentines.  So, if I get to ride tomorrow (which is iffy) I’m thinking that more work in serpentines would be good – at least as we warm up.  And, I think it’s time to put the spurs back on, now that my leg position is better.  I need to add emphasis to my leg aids.  However, I need to keep insisting upon responsiveness too.  The last thing I want is a horse that is dead to the leg.

The good news is that Mads was nicely forward, though we still don’t have the quality trot we were generating before the holidays.

This nice trot is still eluding us, but we're working toward it.

In addition to the hanging issues, and the forward issues, I’m dumping Maddie onto her forehand.  So, half-halts need to be a bigger part of my repertoire.  I’m good about half-halting as we head into a corner, or asking her for a shorter, “smaller” gait on the short side, but I am not using them enough at other times, to engage her back end and invite her to lift her shoulders, producing the pretty, uphill gait pictured above.

So I need to get better at multi-tasking in the saddle.  This is always hard for me when I’m not fully proficient with a skill. Feeling what’s going on underneath me, and responding in the moment — and appropriately — is hard.  But that’s dressage.

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!)