Feeling good.

A nice moment with Oliver

My farrier looked at Derby on Friday, and assured me that he wasn’t re-abscessing in his left hind.  He had some minor remaining bruising but said that he was fine to ride.  So, after a few days off due to my dithering and uncertainty, we tacked up and had an easy ride.  Saturday I asked him for a bit more,  getting a little resistance that I was able to overcome. And today, we did even more, and Derby was lovely.

I’m starting each ride with good walk work, concentrating on getting Derby into the bridle.  However, I’ve decided that the warm up routine that works best for him is this: forward walk (no real lateral work) followed by a lap or two of trotting on a loopy rein to during which he sneezes and clears his pipes, then on to good solid forward trot – and then the work can begin.  Lateral work at the walk is best done during walk breaks – which really aren’t “breaks” at all.

Anyway.  Today Derby was clearly feeling pretty good and we got some fantastic work done – he was really round, his back was up, and he was really moving.  Liz was hanging out, waiting for Cloud to dry after a bath, and she watched us, offering some feedback here and there and some nice compliments.  🙂

What was so nice about today is that I was really able to get Derby into the bridle, and once he was there, he felt so solid and responsive.  I was able to regulate his stride easily, and I didn’t have the issues bending him when I had that good connection that I do when the contact is tenuous.  He was also very forward, moving out very well and really covering the ground.  It felt simply marvelous.   We did shoulder-in both ways, and some decent leg yields too.  I was especially pleased because I hadn’t been feeling great prior to the ride – but needless to say my mood was elevated and I felt pretty good when I dismounted.

I wish I’d had a reservoir of energy today, because I just didn’t have it in me to ride Oliver, with whom I’ve been entrusted this weekend while Steph is away.  For fun, I took a lesson on him yesterday, and got a real workout in riding the horse forward into contact.  With Oliver, I’m trying to give him a longer rein, and then invite him to move forward into that contact, filling up the slack.  This is tough, because he doesn’t move forward readily, and he likes to go around with his head up.  Really up!  I was hoping to do some canter work with him, but my agenda quickly refocused –  first and foremost I wanted to get him to relax, and reach for the contact.

As you can see from the video clip below, we got there, but I literally had to manage almost every stride, putting leg on, on more, softening immediately to reward the correct behavior, and continually sending him forward and inviting him to fill up the the reins.  I want him to be the one pulling on the reins, not me.

It was fun to ride Oliver again – he’s got better gaits than Derby and someday is going to be a very fancy fellow indeed.  I’m going to bed early tonight, and hope to get another ride on him in tomorrow night, before my lesson on Derb.  My ride on Oliver yesterday gave me some ideas, and my ride on Derby today reinforced the feelings of gait quality and contact. I’d love to be able to replicate that feel on Oliver.

After all, we *are* training war horses here …

Oliver's first ride outside

I can’t claim the hilarious line that I used for this post’s title.  It appeared to great guffaws on one of the dressage discussion boards I frequent.  But when it appeared months ago while I was still riding Maddie it got me thinking about dealing with a distracted horse.

The historical roots of dressage are in fact based in the military training.  And it’s not difficult to imagine the utility of a highly responsive mount that is forward and willing when riding into battle.   A leg yield may very well evolved as a means to get a better angle for wielding one’s broadsword.

Christy and I talked about this one night when Mads was being a handful.  I had discovered – either by serendipity or accident – that riding a cloverleaf pattern of small (12m or so) loops was a great way to refocus the mare’s attention on me.   This was an important lesson for me – I learned that I had a lot more control over spooky situations than I thought I did.  I learned that if I just sat up and really rode, I could get through the mare’s moments.

There are a few reasons why this works, Christy explained.  First and foremost, horses look for leaders.  When you take charge unequivocally, you assert yourself as the leader, and the horse is very likely be happy to be relieved of the decision-making, and to follow willingly along.   Conversely, when you abdicate the leadership role to the horse, you also abdicate the decision-making to a lower-order animal who thinks that flight is a great solution to most problems.

Secondly, Christy noted that when I sat up and rode, I went from being more passive to being a  very active rider, truly riding every stride.  When I watch Christy, I can see that she’s riding every moment, every stride, constantly testing her connection, bending, softening, giving, taking, half-halting, driving — she’s never just cruising along. Riding every stride is something that I don’t yet do with consistency.  And it’s  a key differentiator between a good rider and one that’s less effective.  When I have had these moments, Christy has told me that I’ve never looked better – that the mare’s back was up, she was rounded and engaged end-to-end.  And I remember how good that felt – how that big mare transformed into a Ferrari, nimble and responsive.

These experiences and conversations gave me tools that I use frequently when dealing with a looky horse, and they came in handy yesterday when I took Oliver for his first ride outside in the outdoor arena.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day, breezy enough to keep bugs away.  Oliver was really good as I mounted and we walked around. However, I wasn’t letting him just dink aroud on a loose rein.  We started with stretching and bending, and walked in serpentines and circles to warm up, and get familiar with the surroundings.   For a while we were alone in the ring (though there is a turn-out right next to the ring, so we weren’t truly alone) and Oliver was a champ.  We kept working on stretching (and I focused on giving giving giving at the right moment) and Oliver really did well.

Bending, and staying on the bit. Good boy!

Some others came back outside just as we picked up a trot.  Oliver decided to do a tiny spook at the mounting block, which was ridiculous, and earned himself a smack on the butt with the crop, and trotting in the deeper sand.  Off we went, circling and working our way around the ring.  Determined to not let him get away with that monkey business, I really rode him – doing lots of bending and flexing, and keeping as on the bit and round as I could.  He tried to look at the mounting block again, but complied when I applied my inside spur and kept the outside rein firm.  He was more worried about the poles in far corner of the ring, so we spent some time working down there, halting near them, and eventually eating some dandelions from Christy’s boyfriend’s hand as we stood in that corner.

My assertive riding  was done with keeping looking and spooking to a minimum in mind – I really wanted Oliver to have a nice, confident, pleasant ride outside – but it came with another benefit.  I got better quality work from Oliver than I ever have.  Hopefully we’ll get some pictures – Peaches was out with her girls and they had a camera.  I’m eager to see what we looked like because it really felt good!

Humpty Dumpty Learns to Ride

Some nice trot work with Oliver

I was channeling Humpty Dumpty last night during my lesson on Oliver, and Christy had to work hard to put me back together again. But she got the job done, and Oliver produced some very nice moments, stretching into contact while almost tracking up, and starting to work over his back.

A key contributing factor to my issues last night was the saddle.  Just for fun, I rode in a Stubben Romanus – an old one.  It’s the opposite of the saddle I’m used to (a Wintec Isabell). Instead of a deep seat covered in grippy suede, this old Romanus was slick leather, with a much shallower seat.  And instead of air-filled panels, the Romanus panels feel like they’re foam-lined and filled with wool flocking.  They’re soft, and solid, and lack the shock-absorbing quality of the Isabell.

Christy’s new saddle is also wool-flocked, and she says she can feel a lot more movement in it than in her old Isabell.  I tease Christy about being the Princess and the Pea – she feels so much more than I do in the saddle.  I think she could read Braille with her butt, frankly.  The same cannot be said of me, but riding Oliver – who I’m getting to know fairly well – in the Romanus was an entirely different experience that my usual ride.  All of a sudden, I was being bounced out of the saddle at the trot.  And while Oliver has nice, solid gaits, he doesn’t produce a lot of suspension. (Yet!)  His trot is pretty flat.  I wasn’t prepared for this feeling and had to spend some time finding my balance.

Finally – with constant adjustments and encouragements coming from Christy – I started to get it together, and regained some semblance of independent hands which had left me entirely at the beginning of the ride.  Humpty Dumpty was patched up.

Something else that helped me get it together was asking Oliver to move forward.  This helped me in two ways.  First, once I got him going forward – and I was keeping him there – his rhythm improved – a lot.  If I let him go at his own pace, he speeds up, then slows down, and then spurts forward again.  Keeping him going forward is easier to ride because it cuts down on the variability in speed – and that variability makes it hard to stay balanced.  Secondly, the more forward, proper working trot is easier to ride from a balance standpoint. It’s easier to ride when you can use the momentum of the horse’s gaits in your favor.

Once I started to resemble someone with a bit of training rather than a sack of potatoes, Christy had me work on inviting Oliver to really stretch into contact, something that has been on my to-do list for a while, but I’ve not made much progress in this area.  She quickly diagnosed the problem – I’ve not been giving enough with my hands.

We’ve discussed “giving hands” before, which is another way to describe following contact, which allows the horse to stretch forward, and can also reward the horse with a decrease in rein pressure for the correct behavior.   I commented that Oliver’s unsteadiness in the bridle made it harder for me to give at the right time.
“And that’s why it’s even more important!” was Christy’s response. And she’s right, of course.  Oliver is new to dressage, and prior to Steph’s purchasing him, he was ridden in  a leverage bit with a tie down. He’ll never learn to go correctly into contact if he doesn’t get good guidance from the person on his back.  I redoubled my efforts, trying to keep my hands quiet and the contact steady.  Christy reminded me to activate my inside leg, using the spur when necessary to enage Oliver’s inside hind.

“Ride the back end, and leave the front end alone,” Christy suggested.  I envisioned side reins, and concentrated on simply holding steady contact on the reins – not messing around with softening or opening or asking for give.  I focused solely on keeping the contact quiet and holding on to the outside rein, and got busy with my leg aids.

The improvement was almost immediate.  I turned my heel inward, applied a little spur pressure, Oliver stepped neatly aside with his hind leg and his neck lengthened.

“Give give give give GIVE!” Christy commanded. “Again!”   We repeated the exercise, and I finally reacted quickly enough to get a nice stretch into contact for a few strides, after which I stopped riding, whereupon he hollowed his back and popped his head up.  You really do need to ride every stride.  We repeated the process several times, going each way.  At the end of the ride, we were both sweaty and puffing.

Oliver is figuring this out – and it gets easier as the horse develops strength and self-carriage. Oliver is just beginning to develop the new muscles necessary to carry himself correctly.   It’s fun and challenging to work through these moments with him, and he’s such a pleasant horse to work with.  It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him develop!

Green horse, grey horse.

I got a real lesson in contrasts today, riding Oliver and Frank.  Both are total loves, and both are Thoroughbred geldings, but the similarities end there. Oliver is a green bean, but Frank knows more about dressage than me, having been trained to Second Level.

I rode Oliver first, and was hoping that I’d have a better ride than I did yesterday.  Oliver was hell-bent on testing me on Saturday, acting spooky and distracted, possibly because he had a little extra energy since the horses were stuck inside due to some awful weather.  I spent a lot of time growling at him, and it took a while for him to settle so we could really work.  Because he was being silly, I elected to get and keep his attention by doing lots of transitions and changes of direction.   In addition to being silly, Oliver also tried to convince me that he had forgotten everything he knew about transitions downward from my seat. Instead of responding to my half-halts by starting to bring his back up and stepping under himself – as he had been doing sooo nicely last weekend – yesterday he was ignoring the half halt – and the fact that my butt was planted in the saddle – and barreling on.

That would not do.

We did walk/halts (while spiraling in and out) until I got the crisp response I’d been seeking.  Then we moved back into trotting.  I started out just going down the rail, but wasn’t getting a satisfactory response.  Oliver had what Steph calls “OMG ears” and was actively looking for reasons to spook .   So I started riding figure 8’s – little ones at one end of the arena, and then larger ones, and then long flat ones, bisecting the arena down the centerline.

Things got better immediately, because I was keeping Oliver focused on me.  We worked on walk/trot/walk/trot transitions and he did pretty well.

Today was a different story.  Oliver was a total star.  We had our best trot work to date – I got him to move out, and we successfully completed laps of the arena trotting nicely both ways.  He was relaxed and just rolled along.  I also asked him more insistently to reach down, and while I wouldn’t say that he was round, he wasn’t wildly inverted.  I was proud of Oliver, and told him so!

We also had some very nice transitions from my seat, from trot to walk, and from walk to halt.  We worked on those while we also worked on steering – around the mounting block, figure-8s all over the place, you name it – and Oliver was a champ.  I was so pleased with him today!  I rewarded him with a hand grazing session (on top of lots of cookies) before I turned him back out to lounge in the sun.

After gulping some water, I went and fetched Frank.  My old buddy was feeling really good today, and surprised me by starting out at a smart pace when I picked up the trot after we warmed up.  I let him roll, hopping into two-point and getting a feel for this different feeling gait.  It has a lot more motion than the jog Frank offers when he’s feeling creaky.  He was getting a little strung out, so I decided it was time to help him out.  I started posting, took a feel on his mouth … and discovered that he wasn’t going to give it to me.  If I wanted Frank to round, he was going to make me work for it.

I was posting out of a half-seat, to stay off his back, and I increased my post, to make more “room” for a bigger stride.  I also got busy with my inside leg, engaging my core and making a point of holding my outside rein and asking Frank to soften with the inside rein.  Within a few strides, I got results.  Frank took the contact, stretched, and the trot started to feel a lot better. I tested my contact by seeing if Frank would follow my contact downward – if he didn’t, that would tell me that he was just going around with a fake headset. I invited a stretch, and got it.  I had true contact. Yay!  I could feel myself holding him between the inside leg and my outside rein. It’s been a looong time since I felt that!

This was the first ride in a log time I that I had generated proper contact.  As we went around the short side, I decided to throw in a circle to give another rider some room to maneuver.  And at that point, I got busted by the former school horse, who didn’t feel I was using my inside leg sufficiently, and ignored my inadequate request to do a 20 meter circle.  Crap!

I gathered myself and asked for another circle as we approached A.  it was ugly, because I forgot to close my fingers around the outside rein as I applied my inside leg (with more vigor this time.) Frank waggled his ears at me (I swear he did!) as he popped his outside shoulder out. Crap!

I sat myself up, made sure my feet were indeed where they belonged (at the girth, not curled back to Frank’s flanks) , held that damn outside rein, turned my left toe outward and deliberately applied my spur while also giving Frank a tap tap with my whip.   I got the “yes ma’am” response I sought, and we circled nicely, with decent contact and a quality trot.

We went down the long side, and as we headed into the short side, I gave Frank a little half-halt, to bring him more into hand.  We kept the little trot long the short side, then took a diagonal, which went quite well, since I 1) half-halted again down the short side and 2) looked where I wanted to go and 3) actually balanced the horse between my inside leg and outside rein, for a change.

We did another nice circle at C, with no shoulder popping or ear-waggling.  And then another down the long side for good measure.

I was panting and sweating – partially because I was dressed a bit too heavily, and partly because I’m in horrific shape after having been sick on and off for months.  But it felt great to really ride, even if Frank was channeling Christy and busting me when I got sloppy.  We cooled out, and then went to graze.

Two totally different horses, two totally different rides, and a completely satisfying day!

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!