A quick update

The ups and downs have continued, a bit. I was away for work over last weekend, and during time, Derby sliced the inside of a hind leg open.  Liz was babysitting him for me, and gave him some excellent first aid, and arranged to have him kept in for a couple days, since we’re still mired in mud.  The wound is healing nicely, and I did a couple short rides this week when I returned.

However, he started to spring a shoe, and I was determined not to call my long-suffering farrier, since we have an appointment for tomorrow morning. So for the last two nights, we just walked.  Derby was bug-eyed at a the newly opened arena doors, so I took the opportunity to do lateral work, and really feel his hind legs.  Getting control over the inside hind is the key, but I don’t have a ton of feel for that yet.

I have family coming in this weekend, and won’t be riding Friday and Saturday.  Sunday we’ll be back in business, and next week we’ll restart regular lessons.

In other news, my friend Frank leaves for a new home on Saturday.  His new owner is besotted and he’s going to a lovely farm with rolling, grassy pastures.  We’ll miss him terribly but it sounds like a great place for him. My very best wishes to Deb and Frank for many happy years together!

Clarifying lateral work basics

Beginning our work on a 20 m "square"

Tonight I wanted to work some more on improving my ability to activate Derby’s hind legs, and really get him to step under himself.  Christy devised a great exercise that helped me tremendously.   We started at the walk, on a 20 m “square.”  Instead of a circle, Christy had me ride straight lines, and then ride each turn like a deep corner.   This ensured I bent the horse, and straightened the horse, and bent again.    Then she had me add a couple steps of leg yield on my straight sides.  I was amazed that we were able to do this easily, and without a much insistence on my part. We repeated the pattern at the trot, and as we rode through it,  I could feel the contact and the gait improving.  It was a neat exercise that really helped me develop more feel about what a decent leg yield requires, and what it feels like.

Switching directions, however, things got a little sloppy in the corners.  Christy remedied this by having me fix my eyes on a spot on the wall, and ride toward it.  Then going into the corner, he had me turn my head, find a new spot, and ride to that.  This little trick cleaned up my corners in a hurry.  I started riding them deeper and getting more well organized.  Best of all, I felt a real improvement in my connection and the horse’s back end.  You can see from the picture below that he’s really using himself.    It was a great lesson and this exercise is one I”m going to use a lot!

Goal achieved. Derby is using himself well behind.

PS.  I put my small spurs back on tonight.  My lower leg is staying really quiet! Yay!!!

Everything is a little better

Using leg yield to get better connection at the trot

Today’s ride was really solid, on a number of different levels.  I did a make up lesson with Christy, after temperatures near zero put a stop to lessons on Thursday, and we picked up where we left off – building my strength in my new position and starting to apply the aids.

Derby felt great today, but it took some coaching from Christy to get me to ride him more back to front, with a better connection.  I started the day by going in a nose-poking-out stretchy frame that looked like a baby green hunter.   To establish a better connection, I need to first and foremost get Derby’s back end activated and engaged.   Getting him through and working from behind is a real weakness of mine, and it’s something I must fix.

The good news is that my lower leg was steady throughout the ride.  I feel like I can crack coconuts with my new-found inner thigh strength! Okay,I exaggerate, but in just a week I’ve gained a lot of strength in this area, which is a big help.

So back to the issue du jour, working from behind.  Christy had us do an exercise at the trot which simply entailed talking the quarterlines, and then leg yielding toward the wall.  My first few attempts were totally ineffective.  Then Chrisy had me do a little shoulders-in to get Derbs into the outside rein, and reminded me that quality bend was also required.  Better prepared on our next try, we got a few little steps, and then a few more.  And as we schooled this exercise, the trot started to feel stronger and more powerful.  The quality improved tremendously.

The key take away for me today was pretty straightforward – I need to deliberately ride the movements, and if I don’t get the response I am asking for from the horse, I have to fix it, now.  I’ll be focusing on hind end engagement in the near term.  Life will be easier when Derby and I improve these skills.  Overall, though, I was happy with this ride.  Everything – our contact, our trot quality, my leg, quality of bend, the works – was a bit better today.

After I rode, I watched Christy ride Liam.   I swear, I learn as much watching her on the ground as I do in lessons.   Liam had been off for a few days, and Christy wasn’t happy with the quality of the trot she was getting.  She deliberately worked on isolating and moving his hind legs, and once she established that control, the gait quality significantly better.   Watching her ride, and seeing how she used leg yields and other movements to activate Liam’s hind legs – and then witnessing the subsequent improvement in the gaits – really solidified my lesson in my mind.

Contact isn’t a game, and it isn’t magickal.

Well, the crappy weather is upon us, and I donned my favorite cold weather britches tonight (Irideon Wind Pros), wool socks, turtleneck, fleece, jacket and stocking cap and headed out.  The horses were stuck inside for a second day, due to the heavy rains that have turned their paddocks into seas of mud.  Derby was really happy to get out of his stall, to say the least, and the rides we’ve been having lately are great motivation, even on awful nights such as this one.

The walk quality for the last couple days has been really good from the get-go – really powerful and swinging – which I attribute less to my riding and more to the fact that Derbs has been cooped up and has a lot of energy. I’m taking advantage of it, though, and am using the walk as a foundation for getting him really through and into the bridle.   The contact I’m getting is so strong, and even – he’s really pulling into the bit, and I’m feeling his back under me consistently.  Really consistently.  I’m even starting to play with lateral work at the trot – shoulder-in and leg-yield – movements that are way head of the game for us, but helpful in engaging (and strengthening) his hind end.

I attribute our ability to generate shoulders-in and leg-yields directly to the this new-found solid contact.  *This* is what a connected horse feels like! I had a few glimmers of this with Maddie, but wasn’t able to hold the feeling.  Derby and I, on the other hand, have been able to hold it together pretty well lately.

We also have a fantastic free walk – Derbs will follow the reins down to the end of the buckle, and he’ll stay there.  We’ve also experimented with stretchy trot, which is also growning pretty reliable.  I can pick him up, stretch him down, rinse and repeat to my heart’s content.

It’s such an elementary thing but I know – from my own experience and from watching the Dover clinic – that contact is fundamental.  It’s not a game, as some would have you believe, and it’s not an ephemeral state.  It’s physical, it’s feedback, and it’s truly something the rider doesn’t take.  The horse has to give you contact, and the rider has to create the environment that encourages and rewards the horse for doing so.


The end of the week

After three great rides, I was hoping to keep the momentum going but Derby was feeling the effects of the stepped up work ( at least that’s what I’ve concluded, and I had overdone things in a workout earlier that day and had almost zero in the tank.  Our work was OK, and we got the canter both ways, but Derby was resistant and registered his discontent with a little buck.   Friday the horses were back outside (the icky weather kept them inside for a couple days earlier in the week) and he had the day off.

We started today with a set of new shoes, but Derby was still a bit uncomfortable for the farrier, and I had to free longe him to loosen up his back end so he’d tolerate getting his hind feet trimmed.

Our ride – my first on my own since the clinic – was pretty good.  I worked on lateral work, especially leg yielding the trot, and did some canter work both ways, and his attitude was much improved compared to Thursday’s as well.  Overall the contact was pretty good, as were the quality of the gaits.

After we rode, I put him on the longe, for the prescribed longe work.  He was swapping leads pretty badly earlier in the week, but today I got good quality work both ways.  I do hope we’re well along the road to recovery and loosening (and strengthening) those big muscles.

The Prescription

Crappy eq notwithstanding, Derby is going more reliably round, forward, and on the bit.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Derby is suffering some latent stiffness and muscle pain stemming from both the abscess and the fact that he really needs more conditioning, especially with respect to his hind end and his top line.  At the moment, some muscles in his hind end are quite tense and tight, causing him to move stiffly, starting from his hips, and evidenced by shorter strides, and a back that doesn’t swing.  He’s particularly reluctant to move out on his right hind, and Dr. Nicky said she suspects that he’s still off from using his hind limbs asymmetrically when he had the abscess. She prescribed Robaxin along with a program of longing and riding with the specific aim of stretching and strengthening those muscles.   So, even though he’s not moving perfectly, I need to get on and really ride.

This is what I need to really shoot for - getting him to step up under himself, while maintaining roundess and contact, to keep him over his back. This requires multitasking on my part.

The imperative from the vet and the lingering effects of the Dover clinic have galanized me, and Christy, who is no longer inclined to cut me any slack.  The lesson tonight worked a lot on leg yield and canter transtions, which were especially sticky to the right, requiring me to sit up, ride and require equine compliance and cooperation.

Overall, I’m happy with our work tonight.  The trot is more reliably round and forward.  I’m getting better contact, though I may have to give some credit to a softer bit – Derby went very nicely in a fat KK, switching out from the thinner Myler comfort snaffle.   And after a few attempts, I got a nice, immediate upward transition going right.  That took some doing – that’s the lead we’ve been having difficulty with, most likely due to the abovementioned lameness and conditioning woes.  We had no such issues going left – Derb picks that lead up right away.

And the trot is better, though in this video, you can see in Derby’s tail carriage (tense, held out) that he’s a bit uncomfortable. I hate that he is, but am determined to minimize this uncomfortable period by rigorously following the vet’s instructions, (and feeding lots of carrots and cookies to make up for it in the meantime.)

Channeling Robert Dover (or trying to, at least)

I have nine pages of notes and hours of video from the weekend’s clinic with Robert Dover, hosted by Wyngate Equestrian, and I really will try to synthesize all that info and share it with you.  For now, I’ll stick to just a couple key things I took away from the experience.

First and foremost,  Dover focuses on the basics.  He tested almost every rider’s connection with their horse, and proceeded with the lesson based upon what he observed during the exercise, no matter what level the horse and rider were at.  One rider, who was mounted on one of the most fabulous horses in for the clinic (and that is really saying something, folks, there were truly some world-class animals there, including one that had been shortlisted for the Pan Am Games) that was purportedly schooling all the FEI work wound up working on getting the horse through and into the bridle honestly!  It was an astounding lesson, from the standpoint that someone at that level could have such fundamental weaknesses.  And this rider wasn’t alone.  Another GP rider had similar issues with connection, and a third rider who was competing at fourth spent most of her lesson working on bend.

It was fascinating watching Dover work with these three in particular, because I really wasn’t expecting to see people with issues to which I can really relate.  The difference in the riders from the beginning to the end of their lessons was amazing, and one rider must have done extra homework, because her ride the following day was truly extraordinary, drawing applause from the auditors, myself included.

In addition to his emphasis on the basics, Dover also emphasized perfection. “Walk perfectly,” he said dozens of times, going on to say that if your horse wasn’t through and on the aids at the walk, it wouldn’t be through and on the aids anywhere else.    He required riders to follow his instructions precisely, and had them repeat the movement when it wasn’t up to his standards.    As Christy noted in her first recap of the clinic, every rider rose to his challenge.  In our chat about the clinic afterwards, Christy and I both noted that the charge to expect more of you, and your horse, was one that we would be taking back to Silver Fern.

Finally, the last big take away for me was around forwardness and responsiveness.  I *know* that you need your horse to be forward and attentive, willing to respond instantly to the subtle aids that make well-ridden dressage so beautiful. Dover emphasized the fact that how we ride trains our horses, and essentially, we have to ride them like we want to ride, and require them to respond.

As I said, I have a lot more to share about the clinic, but now I need to talk about today.

Derby’s abscess seems to have healed nicely, but he’s been short on his right hind (the abscess was in the left.) I had the vet out, and while she did support putting him on Adequan and said he would need to have his hocks done at some point, the issues I’m seeing are more about weakness and tightness in his SI region. She prescribed a course of forward, correct work.  Which means that between what I learned from Robert Dover and what my vet says the horse needs, I need to make some changes.

It’s been two weeks since I really rode, so I did a short lesson to get back into the swing of things.  I told Christy to take no prisoners, and my formerly sweet trainer turned into a demanding taskmaster.  But that’s what we needed, and we had a good ride  – despite his reluctance to use his back end and step under himself, I was able to get him to do both, with constant coaching from Christy.

Because the correct work is now an absolute imperative, I’m taking lessons each night this week, and on Saturday, and will probably repeat the same next week.  I need to channel Robert Dover and get the perfect work Derby and I badly need.

Fluid dynamics, or the dynamics of fluid riding

This is an awfully fancy sounding title for a blog post, but I had a cool lesson last night that, among other things, involved my first few dinky baby steps of haunches-in and haunches-out. Or, in keeping with the fanciness – renvers and travers.  Say it with me “rhan-vair”  “trah-vair.” Dang, I sound good! (So do you!)

I was riding adorable little Tucker, who is very well trained and sensitive.  Christy was mounted on her newly off the track baby horse Remy, who is just starting to really use his back and is getting the dressage basics down quickly.   From the back of her green bean, as we discussed how aids need to be 1) distinct and 2) contextual, she gave me a short demo of how to move different horse parts around.   Under her guidance, Remy did one step of shoulder in one way, and repated it on the other side.  Then, again at he invitation, he moved his haunches a step in either direction.

As Christy talked through the movements, she highlighted how she uses her aids to block and channel the horse’s movement.  An outside rein can hold a shoulder, a foot slightly back blocks a haunch, while the aids on the opposite side invite, encourage and guide movement. I immediately thought of how water flows.  It finds the path of least resistance.  But water (like certain crafty Quarter Horses I know) is also good at evading the channels humans create for it.  It will take advantage of weak points.  Horses are the same. Indistinct or unconvincing aids open the door for evasions or incorrect movements.    Under Christy’s careful riding, Remy the green bean performed a few strides of both haunches in and out.  As Christy pointed out, you don’t train entire movements.  Horses don’t have magical buttons one can push to generate the renvers, or a half-pass, or a piaffe.  The movements are the sum total of the horse’s gaits + the rider’s aids.  And, frankly, the rider’s aids have a much larger coefficient in the total equation.

I started experimenting on Tucker.  I’ve ridden a lot of shoulder in at both the walk and trot, and can also manage its corallary, shoulder-out.  But deliberately controlling just one stride of each proved to be a lot tougher than I would have anticipated.   And that was the beauty of the exercise Christy had me do.  Because moving the horse’s shoulders one stride from a standstill requires precision and deliberation in order to move just the shoulders, and nothing else.

Tucker and I wove drunkenly around for a few minutes, until I got the feel for what I needed to do.  And then we did a nice little cha-cha-cha.  One step right, one step left.

Then I switched my attention to the haunches. More drunken weaving ensued. And eventually, I got the feel for what was needed to move his haunches one step right, one step left.  Tuck shook his cute chestnut booty.

Maybe I should have titled this post “Horse Hokey Pokey,” … you put your left haunch in, you put your left haunch out.  Wonder what the judges would think of that as a freestyle?  Ha.

Anyway, I digress.   Once I was moving horse parts around with more specificity, Christy had me try these while walking, pointing out the important fact that I need to hone these specific aids, because they are what I’ll use to control shoulders that pop out or haunches that drift.  These are tools I need to add to my kit.

I aced the shoulder in, and got the shoulder out, too.  I was on familiar ground.  The haunches in and out were a different story all together.   I did quite a bit of leg yielding instead of the desired movements.  I took some deep breaths, and concentrated.  I held my outside rein, I softened inside, I asked for a little bend inward, I slid my outside leg back a bit, to move the haunches out.  “There! That’s it!” Christy exclaimed, towering over Tucker and me from her vantge point high up on Remy.  I was beaming.  This was fun, it was cool – but it’s hard!

We experimented a little more and I had a few correct steps here and there.  The lesson really wasn’t learning about how to ride the renvers and travers – I’m far away from that point.  But it’s never too soon to learn how to more correctly influence the horse, and as Christy showed me with Remy, correct aids can generate the desired response – even from an uneducated mount.

Leg yields, finally.

A step of leg yield! Notice how Maddie's inside hind is stepping inside the track of her inside fore.

For tonight’s lesson, I asked Christy to pick up where we left off yesterday – I wanted to focus on continuing to hone the mare’s responsiveness.  But first, we had to work through a pronounced reappearance of my bad habit of giving away one rein while hanging onto another.   So first, we went back to steering with the outside rein, while giving with the inside rein – but giving by moving my arm forward, rather than letting the rein slip through my fingers.  Christy had me imagine that I was holding a crop with my thumbs, and keeping my hands even, rather than letting one creep back near my hips.  That trick worked well.

So we moved onto lateral work.  I’m happy to report that last night wasn’t a fluke!  I put the mare to work, keeping off the rail and making deliberate turns, keeping her connected to the outside rein, and then yielding out on a circle. Once again, we had some nice moments, and the mare was pretty (though not perfectly) responsive.  However, she was responsive enough, and I was a little jelly-legged after a mid-lesson bolting spook that I was able to somehow ride.

This isn’t a pretty picture, but you can see that her back has come way up, and that she’s stepping inside with her right hind.

We worked in both directions, and got some particularly nice work going left. Again, we started on a circle, and spiraled in and out, taking a step or two of leg yield as we spiraled away from the center.

I decided to see if I could keep it together down the quarter line:

Mission to leg yield accomplished!

I still need to work on her responsiveness – but I feel like we’re headed in the right direction after these rides.  Progress is motivating!

The sharper the knife, the less you cry

Cooks have a saying:  the sharper the knife, the less you cry.  Sharp knives are easier to handle and less dangerous than dull blades – they slice effortlessly through veggies and meat.  A dull knife, on the other hand, is more dangerous, because it requires more effort of the user to achieve the desired effect.  And like a sharp knife is easier to use, a responsive horse is easier to ride effectively.

This saying came to mind tonight as I was leading Maddie back to the barn after a lesson, and grinning like a fool because it had been a good ride.    I told Christy that I wanted to work on my lower leg aids, namely, my ability to use my spurs accurately. I had strapped them on last night for the first time in months, and some irritated behaviors from the mare told me that I had inadvertently banged her with them a couple times. While my leg position is much improved, I still revert to my old  “toes out” posture when I get tired.   Developing awareness and acuity with the spurs requires me to continue to improve my leg position and stability.

So as I warmed up, I practiced deliberately putting my lower leg on,  releasing, putting my spur on and releasing.  However, as I did this I wasn’t getting much of a response from the mare.  I was also having trouble dropping my heals and holding a good position – my hips were tight, and probably a bit tired from two strenuous rides yesterday, and my earlier ride today on Oliver.   After promising Christy that I’d continue to work on my flexibility and strength, I took the spurs off.

So the lesson changed course. As we worked on my leg position and aids, which were partly successful some of the time, Christy told me that I was reverting to my bad habit of curling my heel upward, sticking it in the horse’s side and leaving it there.  I focused on being more deliberate with my aids.

However, I wasn’t getting the response I was seeking.  Unsure of whether or not I was eliciting a response because I guess I forgot what a correct leg yield felt like, I asked Christy watch for response while I attempted to leg yield out on a circle.   I got a big  fat nothing. We talked about it a bit and I told Christy that I wanted the horse that I started riding last May.  Mads was so light and sensitive then, and would respond instantly to any aid.  And I’ve dulled her responses.

So we started working on redeveloping a response,  We started at the walk.  Christy asked me to back up any requests I made of the horse with the whip, but advised me to treat any response – a head toss, a break to trot or canter, as good and to praise it, and to ride it.  My first opportunity came quickly as Mads ignored me when I tightened my leg against her.  I gave her a little whack with the whip and she hopped into a trot.  “That’s fine,” Christy said, as I half-halted and brought Maddie back to a walk.  We repeated this a few times, and within a few minutes, we produced a nice little leg yield down the quarter line!

Christy had us move into a trot.  I got the mare moving in a nice forward gait with good contact.  I asked for a leg yield on a 20 meter circle, and didn’t get a satisfactory response.  I gave the mare a little swat, and she propped and swished her tail – and went strongly forward. “That’s fine,” Christy called to me. “You need to get her in front of your leg!”

We continued on the circle at an energetic and connected trot.  “You have her undivided attention now,” Christy said as we breezed around her.  And she was right.  The mare had one ear back on me, and was steady in the bridle. I asked for the leg yield again, and … Maddie floated outward.  There it was!   I was thrilled.

I went to change directions, and as we moved off in a trot, Christy asked me what I thought of the upward transition.  There was no denying it, it was pretty crappy.   We half-halted and walked, and I asked for the trot, reinforcing it with a tap of the whip.  The mare stepped off immediately.   This was better.  We tried it again, and I asked for more enthusiasm, by being a bit more emphatic with my leg aids, but not touching the whip.  She went straight forward, into contact, with no head shaking or nonsense.  “That’s good!”  said Christy, as I let the mare trot on.  “Now, how light can you make your aids, but still keep that immediate response?”

We walked, and after a minute, I closed my legs softly on the mare’s sides.  She struck off in a nice trot right on the spot.

This was a seminal lesson,and an empowering one.  I can fix my forwardness and responsiveness issues if I align my mental intent and my aids, and take care to reinforce my aids with whip or spurs if (and only if) necessary.  I was amazed at the progress we made in one short ride.  I can’t wait to get back in the saddle, and continue to hone and sharpen my aids, and Maddie’s responses.  One thing I need to remember though is to stay consistent.  To do otherwise is unfair to the horse.  I need to ride every transition crisply, encouraging and rewarding prompt response, and reinforcing my aids clearly when needed.