The Outside Rein

I commented to Christy last night that over the last few weeks, I’ve added a lot more blocks to my foundation, but as I’ve done so, I’m aware of even more gaps in my fundamentals.

“Welcome to dressage!” Christy replied.  She went on to note that the changes we’ve made in my leg (un-pinching my knee, among other things) and seat (more awareness/use of seatbones) has improved my posture in the saddle and Derby’s gait quality. In particular, she said, I’ve got more throughness, better connection and more hind end engagement.  This was music to my ears.  It often feels better – I’m glad that the improvements are visible, too.

Last night we worked on my feel for getting the horse into the outside rein.  I noticed that I ride fairly correctly, with good “feel” and response, going to the right. However, going left – the direction in which I fight my physical crookedness and a stiff hip – is another story.

We repeated an exercise I’ve done before – turning the shoulders with the outside rein, while giving the inside rein.  Christy diagnosed one of my problems – an “eh” response from the horse, and reminded me that I can’t accept that from him.  He *can* step under himself with his left hind.  He can leg-yield nicely to that direction.   And I can’t let him get away with saying “eh, don’t really wanna.”   So my take away was that I need to think as much about what I’m training Derby to do in every ride, as well as my own riding.

“Bad habits are compensation for no response,” Christy noted.  I am paying attention to correct response. The horse is not allowed to ignore the rider.

So, back to the outside rein.  Getting the horse into the outside rein also requires two things that I need to work on – using my inside leg, and giving my inside rein.  While we worked on giving the inside rein, I also paid attention to what I was (or often, wasn’t) doing with my inside leg.  When I put it together, the cause and effect is pretty stark:

A braced neck. We’re hanging on each other.

 

A stride later. I give with the inside, hold the outside, and apply my inside leg.

Voila. Round. Rinse and repeat. Continually, for the rest of my life.

So, in addition to honing Derby’s response, I need to be aware of and hone my own, whether it’s giving the inside rein, or issuing a swift correction when necessary.

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!

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!

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.

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.

Learning is a process.

I'm a big fan of my new leg postion. It's a lot more secure, and things like this aren't as scary!

I took my good weekend rides into a lesson tonight, telling Christy that I had figured out where my trouble with the right rein is originating – I’m popping my right shoulder forward – so even though my hand is not.giving.rein, well, my shoulder is.   Here, from tonight, in all its spectacular ugliness, is my issue du jour.

Where to start? Note the right hand (and shoulder) are far forward, and there is loop in the right rein. The outside rein. Nice.

So I focused a lot on keeping my shoulders square, pushing my left hip a bit forward (feedback from the Equitrainer a couple months ago) and not letting my right shoulder come forward. Obviously, I have a lot of progress to make in this respect.  I mentioned to Christy that I felt like I was constantly breaking and fixing my postion, and she assured me that there would always be something like this to work on – it may eventually be more subtle (I sure hope so) but, as she said, if it was easy, we’d all be riding Grand Prix.

As I rode, we also paid attention to transitions. I’ve been so focused on my leg position and other issues, I’ve allowed the mare to become very sloppy – I have to work harder to get her off my leg, and make her round onto the bit.  She’s fallen behind my leg, which doesn’t help.  It’s hard to do much when your horse isn’t even tracking up. Christy pointed out to me that I was having to ask the mare repeatedly for upward transitions, so I dispensed with my wishy-washy-ness and started using my whip.

I would love to say we went around like this all night, but I would be lying. Besides, you've already seen the two previous pictures.

Fact is, it’s hard to ride well when your horse isn’t responsive.   It’s hard to stay balanced, and keep the horse round and soft, if at the same time you have to kick the critter into an upward transition.  And I recall how easy my first few rides on Maddie were – Christy had put 90 days of training on her, and the mare was ultra light and responsive.  I’ve made her dull, and I need to fix this.

We made some progress tonight, getting what we call “big trot” which really just means a decent working trot, with the horse tracking up and a nice rhythmic tempo. It feels good to be riding that trot again, though I’m still not getting the gait in which I can really feel the mare pushing with the big engine in her hindquarters.   But we aren’t too far away from it.  And I need to make that nice “big” trot my habit.  That’s the trot that ultimately is easiest to work from – which is precisely why it’s called “working trot.”  It’s an essential piece of the foundation.

Toward the end of the ride, Christy assured me it didn’t look as bad as it felt (at least the last few patterns.  The first part of the lesson wasn’t pretty, I don’t care what she says!)  I’m looking forward to the point in the near future when I have re-installed the responsiveness buttons, and have fixed that dratted shoulder!

 

Issue du Jour: Rein Imbalance

The "after" picture - better leg position, with my whole leg rolled inward, and toes foreward.

Finally.  I finally had a decent ride, and lasted for almost the full lesson.  It’s about time. Best of all, looking at some video of the ride, I can see that the work on my postion has really paid off.  My leg looks a lot better, and if feels a lot better.   My leg is hanging more correctly from the hip, and draping around the horse.   It’s not 100% perfect – I still curl heel up and my toes out when I apply leg.  So, while I know I need to continue to work on lengthening and stretching my legs, I also know that I’m headed in the right direction.

The "before" picture: toes out, hips open, and little leg contact with the horse.

Great.  Now, on to the issue du jour – the imbalance in my rein pressure. I think that Christy cracked this nut tonight when she commented that mine isn’t just a left rein issue – I’m imbalanced in the right rein too.  I hold the left rein and give the right – I let my right hand creep forward.  This probably explains why Mads and I circle beautifully to the right – as I’m inclined naturally to hold the left rein and soften the right.  Now, I need to achieve the same feel and balance in the other direction.  We worked on softening the inside rein, while holding the outside. Christy chipped away at it, and by the end of the ride things were clicking.

Dressage isn’t about leaps forward. It’s an exercise in increments.