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!)

Bogeymen

Ferociously cold weather has kept me out of the saddle for the last few days – when it hovers near zero, the arena footing freezes, and it’s really not healthy to work the horses in those temperatures.  I did get a ride in on Saturday, which was the first ride since the craziness of last Thursday.   Annoyingly, I was jittery and it took me a while to start breathing – despite the fact that Mads had returned to her sweet self.  It wasn’t a terribly satisfying ride, because by the time I got my head together, my legs were done – the muscles I’m re-building still don’t have a ton of stamina.  I decided to quit before I lapsed back into my old, still-more-comfortable bad habits.

So I was looking forward to tonight, but the drama llama made a return.  Invisible bogeymen were inhabiting the far side of the arena.  It was pretty windy out, and the doors were banging.  The far corner of the arena apparently hid a large population of them, because Mads was bothered by that corner, cutting the turn short. I took a deep breath, steadied my position, dropped my heels down, and rode.  We did little circles all over the arena, switching direction and changing things up.  Mads kept an eye on that corner. I kept breathing, made a point of not looking at the corner, and tried to stay relaxed, even as I bent her closer to the bogeymen.  I tried to yield her out to the rail with no avail.  Not wanting to set that precedent, we moved away a bit, and I insisted on the yield, and got it.  I’ll be frank – I’m not quite confident enough to ride aggressively (as in insisting on the yield and not compromising if the horse resists) in this sort of situation, and I don’t want to pick a fight I won’t win.

Another rider was having a lesson on her steady-Eddie gelding, who was blind to the corner full of lurking gremlins.  He trotted along the rail, totally unconcerned.  Remembering how George Morris had a dependable horse give a spooky one a lead over a scary jump, I waited for the gelding to trot by, and put Mads right behind him.  First time by the corner she was better, but not 100% great.  Second time, even better.  Third time, not a look.  Good mare!  I decided to move on from all the circles and yields, and started working a little shoulder in down the long sides, half halting and doing “little trot” on the short side, and then asking for a bigger gait on the long side.  I wanted to refresh my half-halts and work on adjustability within the gait.

On the first couple passes, I didn’t get much of a response from Mads when I asked for a bigger gait.  Going into a short side with an unenthusiastic trot, I half-halted the mare and in the same instant pushed her forward, bending into the corner.  A ha!  Her back finally came up, and I felt her step smartly underneath herself.  I gave her a cluck, closed my legs, and invited a bigger gait by increasing the “air time” of my post.  Bam! There it was! The power of that gait never fails to surprise me – it’s an altogether different gear.  When I get that gait from Mads, I feel like the world is our oyster, and we can do anything.

There was one problem.  In that strong transition up to the big trot, I partially lost a stirrup – it slipped back onto the arch of my foot.  I HATE this feeling – and it’s not safe.  Normally, I correct it immediately, which for me, means dropping to a walk, because I’m not yet adept enough to move the stirrup around on my foot while going at any sort of pace, and definitely not when Mads is in “warmblood” gear and is trying to strut it like Totilas.

Okay, I exaggerate but you get my point.

So, back to my situation.  I knew almost instinctively that I had to keep going in that gait I had sought and asked for.    I had to ride her and encourage her forward, and reward her correct response to what I asked.  I rode that lovely trot for almost a lap with my foot hung up in that stirrup.  I then half-halted and asked her for a nice downward transition on my terms, and got it.  Then I fixed my stirrup. We went back to work, and she moved out nicely for me, adjusting well within the trot.

I was glad that I rode her through the sillies and was able to get some good work.  Part of the new confidence comes from my more secure position, which gets better and better – and stronger – with each ride.

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.

 

 

Forward … and upward

Tonight I rode the mare more forwardly, but we still weren’t forward enough.  Our ride was better and we had fewer of the problems I enumerated yesterday, but I’m sure glad my lesson is tomorrow night.  I must work on bending Mads into that outside rein. And I need to develop a better response when I ask for “forward, NOW.”

One interesting thing did happen tonight, and unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone standing around with a video camera, because I sure would have liked to see what was going on.

As I was asking Maddie for a bigger trot down the long side, I continued to flex her slightly right and left, asking for a tiny bit of give.  Then, along the short side, I would half halt her, and ask her for a little trot.  The goal of this is (among other things) is to work on our adjustability within the gait.  But down one of the long sides, I felt a few things happen.  I felt her back come up. And then I felt like I was going to be bounced off.  The trot had a lot more motion than the regular working trot does.
Ah-ha, I thought to myself.  This is the big trot with more suspension.  I adjusted my post, spending a little more time in the air, matching Maddie’s stride. This made the trot a bit easier to ride – but it was still a challenge.   As we came into the short end of the arena, I half-halted, bending into the corner. Her back was still up, but the stride shortened. Interestingly, the motion I felt at the big trot – probably increased suspension – continued at the little trot.  A quick consult with Christy afterward suggests that we were starting to collect a bit.

I’ll have a camera at my lesson tomorrow. I’d really like to see exactly what we’re doing – especially if we’re starting to collect.  That would be news indeed.

Hanging out in her pj's