More tools and tactics

late jan trot

Activating the inside hind

For the last week, I’ve been assiduously working on allowing my leg to drape around the horse, relaxing at the hip and stretching down through the ball of my foot.  This has really helped correct my tendency to curl my feet in, resting my weight primarily on my pinky toes.  It’s also a lot more comfortable!

We worked hard over the weekend and Derby was pretty sluggish and slow to get going last night, despite the fact that it was pretty chilly in the arena last night (and often, nippy air = sassy pony.)

As we worked through our warm up, Christy had me do a new exercise, asking me to throw in a stride of leg yield – first right, then left, then right – down the long sides.   By asking me to leg yield, she was also specifically telling me to ride from my seat and leg, and leave the horse’s face out of the equation.

This was a revelation, because  I started to think more about where and how the resistance was happening – whether it was on one side, or whether Derby was pulling from the center, from the underside of his neck.  Christy had me apply the leg that was opposite the resistance and within short order I had a much more compliant and soft horse.  (Related reading: Christy’s discussion of leg yields.)

As Derby started to move more up and out, Christy also noticed that I was impeding his ability to do so by carrying my hands low, and in so doing, I was inadvertently dumping him on his forehand.  She had me pay attention to moving my hands up, to accommodate Derby’s elevated posture.  Here’s a good snippet of her coaching us:

Motivation^2

Last week I hopped on Manny for couple rides, and admired the way he moved easily off my left leg. I mentioned this to Christy, who noted that my left leg, which is a bit unsteady, ‘nags’ at Derby’s side.  She theorized that he’s dead to my leg on that side as a result.

So responsiveness has been on my mind.  As my strength is coming back, I’m riding the horse more forwardly, and am correcting him when he stalls out and slows down.  I’m getting better gaits out of Derbs, but lateral response can be best described as “meh.”

I also tend to second-guess myself, thinking “I must not have asked correctly” if Derby fails to respond to a request I make.  However, Christy has proven to me repeatedly in the past that for love of all things good and holy, I know how to move a horse off my leg and bend.  Zero response, she reminded me, is not an option.  “He didn’t even swish his tail!” she commented after observing one lame attempt.

austin yield

Christy executes an enviable leg-yield on Austin.

So she set me to work, trotting laps down the long side, and abbreviating the end of the arena by turning deliberately before the end.  She asked told me to start down the long side on the quarter line, and to leg yield to the rail before getting to our turn on the short end.  “Do not turn unless you are on the rail. GET THERE,” she insisted.

The first couple attempts were ugly, and I dropped back to the walk to get my ducks in a row.  After one “listen to me!” correction with the whip, Derby yielded nicely off my left leg.  We picked up the trot, and things were immediately better, and they continued to improve.  Derby became downright responsive, and as I gained better control over the inside hind, his gait quality improved too.

It was a particularly illuminating lesson, and very motivating.  The results – improved responsiveness and better gaits – were pretty immediate, once I got the horse properly motivated.  I’m going to be adding the leg-yield exercises to all of my warm ups.  I now know where those buttons are, and I need to keep fine-tuning them!

Upward spiral

He’s a good buddy.

I have to start today’s post with a little silly horse bragging.  Tuesday’s vet appointment was first thing, and there was a real chill in the air.  Between the crisp temperatures and the fact that everyone else had been turned out, Derby was a bit wound up.  So I put him in the outdoor arena to work off some steam before the vet showed up.  Work it out he did – running, bucking and farting – before finally having two good rolls in the sand. Then he went and grazed the clover and tufts of grass growing along the edges.  Out of the reach of the mower, and recently rejuvenated by some rain, the edges of the arena provided some good eatin’.

After 15 minutes or so, the vet rolled in.  As they were unloading their things, I went up to the gate and called Derby to me.  He picked up his head and sauntered across the area to me.  My vet’s assistant happens to be Derby’s old owner.  She was amazed that Derby – who is very food motivated – would leave grass when I called.   He’s such a good boy!

Now on to the vet visit.  The good news is that the scoping showed zero inflammation of the airway, and zero lesions.   But there was some bad news too.  Derby has started to aspirate food into his airway.  This is the very last thing I wanted to hear, because aspirating food into the trachea can lead to choke and pneumonia.  Scary stuff.

We talked about surgery, but in the meantime, because the matter appeared to be hay, the vet told me to soak his hay.   She also told me not to worry too much – the coughing he does clears the airway.  That explains why I’ve been experiencing more coughing lately.

I focused on using my inside leg to engage Derby’s hind legs, getting him to step up under himself and engage.

On Tuesday night, I rode after Derby had his evening feed.  It was a beautiful, cool night, and he felt great – a little coughing at the beginning of the ride, but then he was pretty quiet.   Last night was the same story.  The wet hay really seems to be helping!  Our hay has been very crumbly – the flakes almost fall apart.  This is due to the drought -the plants are short, dry and stunted.  So instead of having nice, long blades of grass and other plants, the hay has little scraggly bits.  And he must be sucking those into his airway.   So hopefully we’ll dodge a bullet by continuing to soak his hay!  That beats the socks off tie-forward surgery, which is big surgery (the horse is fully out, on his back) and carries no guarantees.

In our lessons this week, we’re focusing on two things – maintaining strong, forward gaits, and activating Derby’s hind legs.  As I’ve mentioned before, these are two historically weak areas for me.    On Tuesday, the focus was really on bend and getting those hind legs to step under.  On Wednesday, it was more of the same, but we added extra focus on gait quality.   I caught myself twisting in the saddle again on Tuesday, causing the horse to fall inward, and forcing me to refocus on my position.  Christy helped me through this by telling me not to worry about fixing my legs (which I was – my outside leg would creep forward, and my inside leg back – ugh) but instead had me focus on my seat and leading with my inside seatbone.  That was the solution to the problem.   We were able to spiral in and leg-yield out nicely.

We’re working on engagement at the canter. The nice moments are coming more frequently, but we’re not yet maintaining the “niceness” all the time.

The canter is still very much a work in progress. I’m looking forward to the day when I have the same influence over the canter as I do the trot.  Right now I have two canters – crappy and decent.   While “decent” is a start, it’s not “working.”  I’m still developing my seat at the canter, and at the same time, I’m starting to think about getting the horse to move more forwardly, soften and engage his hind end.  We have quite a way to go in this gait!

Last night’s theme was “decide to do it.”  I had mentioned to Christy that I had difficulty maintaining a big, forward trot on a circle with correct bend and engagement.  After putting us through our paces, Christy diagnosed that (again!) the issue was with the pilot, not the pony.

“Pretend Robert Dover is watching you,” she said, hearkening back to the clinic, in which we saw what happened when riders were asked to expect more of themselves, and their horses. “Decide how you’re going to ride and then do it.”   So, I did.  I closed my legs, and was fast with a thump of a heel or tickle with the whip if he started to stall out.  Christy was right – it was more about making a decision and following through.   We finished the ride with few laps of big, forward, connected trot after all the work on the circles, and Derbs felt great throughout.

All in all, despite the scary interlude with the airway issues, I feel like we’re managing to spiral a little upward (in addition to in and out, in and out.) 🙂

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.

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.

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!