Warm Up Act

We are growing a neck!

We are growing a neck!

The last two nights’ lessons have been grueling – on Tuesday, my britches and shirt were still damp when I got out of my car at home, more than an hour and a half after the ride’s conclusion.  Gross! I’m not complaining though, because in addition to burning about 1000 calories, the rides have also been was very gratifying.

Work continues on the new position, which is already improving my ability to refine my aids and get better work from Derby.  However, since we’ve switched gears and I’m asking for better quality work from the Derbinator, I was reminded on Tuesday by the Ringmistress that I needed to spend more time warming up.

“Plan on 20 minutes,” Christy told me, laying down the law.  “Start with walking, stretching and then lateral work.  Move him around.  Ten minutes.  Then do the same trotting.”

Christy had us trot and trot, asking me at intervals what  I felt.  As we trotted around, I felt a stiff jog, then a little bit more motion, then finally, some swing and stretching.  Then, and only then was I allowed to pick up the reins.  Point taken, boss.

Honest - to - God connection through the outside rein.

Honest – to – God connection through the outside rein.

We worked on my position and got a good connection, and then it got better and better.  I really felt plugged into the horse.  During a walk break, Christy was reminding me that this effective, plugged-in seat is the foundation for all of the more refined work to which I aspire.   “From there, things like shoulder-in will become easy,” she said.

Just for fun, I picked up the trot, and down the long side, checked to make sure my hips were pointed straight ahead, closed my fingers on my outside rein, and then turning my shoulders to the inside, I moved Derby’s shoulders inward.  Shoulder in.

“Yes. Like that.”  the Ringmistress agreed.   For good measure, I did another one down the other side.  Unfortunately, my phone had croaked, so there’s no video. You’ll have to trust me.  Until we give it another shot on Thursday.

Last night we worked on my position and stilling my lower leg.  Christy made the excellent point that as Derby carries himself, my leg stills.  A large part of the problem, it seems, originates with my nagging when he’s behind my leg.   So we worked on creating and holding a working gait, and making Derby accountable for maintaining it. Then, we focused on helping me develop more clarity with my aids, and improve my assessment of whether or not my aids elicited a response from the horse.   Here’s a video clip, in which I see a lot to like.  My leg looks better – straighter and less involuntary kicking – Derby is moving nicely and we’re doing a decent job of holding ourselves together.




Savage amusement


Derby was feeling patriotic this weekend.

Derby was feeling patriotic this weekend.

Apologies for the hiatus here on the blog. It’s finally summer, and I have been spending maximum time outside, basking in the sun.  That awful winter still isn’t behind me, and I’ve been grateful for every nice day we’ve had, and have been trying to take advantage of all of them.

Anyway, Derby and I have some news for you, and I won’t kid you, I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  We have a new saddle, and it’s an Isabell.  A Bates this time, versus a Wintec.  But nonetheless, an Isabell.  For those that have lost count, this is Isabell #5.

    • First Wintec Isabell, bought new.  Sold shortly after purchasing, as I thought it didn’t fit Jag.  (Kissing spines were the real problem.)
    • Second Wintec Isabell, bought used.  Kind of ratty.
    • Third Wintec Isabell, bought used, was in pretty good shape. Sold ratty Isabell to another gal in my barn.   Sold third Isabell when I bought the Albion.
    • Fourth Wintec Isabell, kind of ratty, bought for a song.  Still have it, but one of the screws is stripped and the gullet head is starting to crack, so I’m not actively switching the gullets out in this one  It’s got an MW gullet in now and I ride Tucker in it.
    • Fifth Isabell is the new Bates.  And my Lord, it is heavenly.  The seat has some memory foam padding, and the panels are super soft and comfy for the horse, especially as it has the Riser System that enables me to tweak the fit. Derby and I are both loving it. But more on that later.

The Passier I was trying didn’t work, and as I experimented with gullets and shims, it became clear that Derby really wanted a narrow saddle. If you’re looking for some savage amusement, try finding a narrow dressage saddle.  No, custom doesn’t count.  And that would be how I ended up with Isabell #5.

The trot is nicely uphill.  So is the path I must take to work on my position.

The trot is nicely uphill. So is the path I must take to work on my position.

It is difficult to overstate how much things have improved now that I’m not fighting the tack.   Derby is willing to move forward more freely. I’m more balanced so I can be effective.  We’re doing better work, and it’s showing in his top line, especially in his neck.  He has a new line of muscle along the top side of his neck, and I’m doing a better job of keeping him round, so that big bulgy muscle on the underside – the one he uses to brace against me – is getting considerably less work.   We’re headed in the right direction, without question.

Screen Shot 2014-07-06 at 10.55.45 PMOn the downside, it’s really interesting the impact that the last few months of battling with my tack has had on my riding – it’s been deleterious to the point I was so out of whack that I was having trouble trotting on the rail.   Yes.  You know, the same basic skill up-downers struggle with initially.  I was so crooked and imbalanced that in an effort to stay under me, Derby would drift out from the wall. We simply could not travel straight!   I had managed to become even more crooked and one-sided. Going to the right, things were okay.  To the left, they fell entirely apart.  Now, this isn’t a new problem, by any short stretch of the imagination.  But months of being out of whack in the tack have amplified the problem.   And fixing it has offered me more savage amusement.

At least I’m not alone. Christy has spent the last few weeks putting us back together, prescribing two-point and a variety of other exercises to help me regain balance and feel.  She reconnected my non-functioning left leg with the rest of my body, and reminded me (again) to get off my inside rein and instead soften it, followed immediately with some encouragement from the aforementioned inside leg.  Like magic, Derby started to fill up the outside rein.

Christy also noted that Derby’s responsiveness and suppleness both need work – while I was struggling so, I was hardly riding him out into contact or asking for correct bend. In fact, for a while he felt like a green horse, motorcycling around corners and bulging instead of yielding into contact.  So in addition to me, we’ve been working on him simultaneously.  We’ve made rapid progress, aided significantly when Christy managed to get my inside leg working again.


We also made a breakthrough on a big problem in my position this weekend.   You can see it in the video and all the pictures in this post – I’m curling my lower leg back, which takes it completely out of the game in terms of effective aids, and it’s also very unsteady (I am not intentionally kicking him with every stride.)   We finally figured out what I was doing wrong when Christy was able to get me to unhook my hip flexors, and use them for lateral aids rather than riding with them “always on.”  I told her it felt like she had unhooked a cable in my legs that was the source of the tension (and curling) and in a way, she had.   So the last few days I’ve been working on maintaining this new position – it still feels very foreign – but it’s definitely solving the problem.   I’m eager for my lesson tonight, and I’m hoping to show a video with a much-improved leg in the near future!




Orange you glad

We've worked hard just to get here.

We’ve worked hard just to get here.

It’s been ages since my last update, and I really wish I had more earth-shattering news to share.  The last few months have been frustrating and enlightening, to say the least.  I’ve been struggling a lot in the saddle, overcoming that knee problem and building strength.

By accident I now also have a very specific understanding of and appreciation for saddle balance.

My Albion K2 became uncomfortable for my sore knee, as the knee blocks really put pressure and I think some torque on that leg.  So I switched back to my old Wintec, with no blocks. The flaps are completely flat.   My ouchy leg is happier in that saddle.

However, though it looked OK, the Wintec was too wide for Derby. His disapproval was subtle at first – he refused to go forward.  And I was struggling like crazy to organize myself, much less him, in that saddle.

In retrospect, I should have spotted a big red flag when I rode Manny and Tucker in that saddle.  On them, in that saddle, I rode well.  Christy and I have concluded that it was a matter of saddle balance.  We monkeyed with shims and gullets, and the difference is night and day.  I had been feeling like I was fighting every moment to maintain my position while on Derby in the too-wide saddle.  Now that I’ve reinstalled the narrow gullet, it’s much easier for me to just ride.

However, my problems (unfortunately) do not start and end with the saddle.  Far from it.

Christy is working me through some issues with my position – in particular, getting me to stop pinching my knees.  She demonstrated memorably for me a few days ago how a rider’s pinchy knee affects the horse.  She was on Remy, and we were chatting about different aspects of rider position.  She was moving around, demonstrating the different effects her biomechanics had on the horse.  When she pinched her knee, Remy’s back dropped.  He flung his head up and became hollow.  Which is how Derby has been going around, apparently because that’s how I’ve been riding him.

When I mounted up, the first thing I did was to fluff my knees away from the saddle.  Immediately this helped me wrap my calves around the horse, and as soon as I did it, Derby started to stretch and round.  All righty then.  Horse approves.

At the trot it’s still a challenge for me to maintain.  I’m using entirely new muscles.  It feels better and I have a more forward horse.  Now I just need to build my endurance and make this new position my habit.  Unfortunately, this part is a bit of a slog!   But what’s the saying? Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it — gotta go through it.  Or something like that.



Coming through

I thought we were still trotting but evidently not.

I thought we were still trotting but evidently not. It turned out for the best though – he finally got in front of my leg after this spook.

Progress continues, but some days it seems painfully slow, while on others I can see improvement and am encouraged.

We’ve been working on reconnecting me to my inside leg, and also improving Derby’s response.  While our lesson last Wednesday wasn’t anything to really write home about,  we were able to achieve a degree of throughness  after a couple spooks and after using simple leg yields to get my inner leg working, and Derby connected into the outside rein.

In addition to riding Derbs, I’ve also picked up a partial shareboard on my little buddy Tucker.  We had a nice ride over the weekend, after I had one a fellow rider take a quick look and offer me some advice on how to get Tucker to stretch down into contact (he’s happy to give you a headset.)  I did a lesson on him last night, and then rode Derbs (and then went home and collapsed.)

Happily, Tucker is telling me that my position and strength are both getting  back in balance. He’s sensitive and has a lot of training.  I got on him a couple months ago and couldn’t ride him in a straight line.  My last two rides, while far from perfect, have been better.  He’s not staggering like a drunk across the arena and I’m able to actually get him to go where I want to go with my seat and legs, which is a nice change of pace.

We’re picking at my position again, as I’ve started clamping my knees and closing my hips.  Riding forward with legs draping, hips open and hands steady is the focus this week.

The big toe and the collarbone


Even dry arena sand looks good from this point of view.

Within the last week or so my knee has finally stopped hurting. I’ve been in physical therapy for an IT band injury since March, and I’m happy to report it’s finally paying off.  The therapy of late has really focused on hip and core strength. Of course, this is good for my riding or at least I believe will be. However, despite the improvements in my right leg, I still need to work on evening up my strength and flexibility on both sides. During this time of rebuilding and reconditioning myself, the unevenness in my strength has had a pronounced effect on my riding. If I ride in my default, unbalanced position, the horse will stagger off to the left. While this is less pronounced on Derby, when I had a lesson on Christy’s horse Austin, who is much more sensitive, we were drawn to  the middle of the arena as if by a magnet.

Christy is having me remedy this situation a few ways. First and foremost, she is absolutely requiring me to ride the horse forward. Secondly, she’s focusing on having me use what we’re now calling my “everything muscle,”  — which is really another way of saying riding with my body fully engaged.  The checklist I’ve been running through in my head (because this is not yet have it and I have to remind myself continually) goes something like this:  “Head straight, shoulders back, chest lifted, hips even, core engaged, no, core really engaged, hips open, legs long, calf draping and toes up.”  Rinse and repeat.

Remembering to keep my toes up rather than my heels down actually has a profound effect on my leg, we’ve discovered. For me at least, when I’m thinking toes up, I engage my whole leg, especially my quadriceps and hip flexors, which also has the effect of opening my hips. We discovered this one night when rather hilariously Christie asked me what adjustment I made when I managed to improve my position, you done to and I told her I flexed my big toes. Sounds silly, but you try it next time you’re in the saddle. The act of flexing your toes upward, rather than just letting gravity pull your heels down, engages a different range of muscles. This is a happy accident, because for me, these are muscles I needed to engage, and I didn’t realize I was failing to do so.

Tonight, we discovered the connection that exists between my collarbone and my big toes. I have a bad habit of slouching through the waist, especially slumping to one side. It’s really hard to ride with decent contact when your waist is engaged, and my solution to this problem, instead of writing correctly, tends to be too harsh word and pull back with my hands. Christy noticed that recently I’ve been really reverting to this position when I go through turns. So she reminded me to turn from the waist, and basically keep my head, hands and shoulders aligned.

“Put your collarbone in the direction you want to go,” she insisted. “Make side reins out of your hands, and close your fingers, keep your hands in front of you and not pulling!”

As most of you know that this elementary exercise results in the rider using the outside ring correctly and softening the inside rain and generally speaking good things happen. Such was the case for me. However, there was another benefit as well. Christy noticed that my posture kept improving as I worked through the exercises while deliberately holding my rein and leading with my collarbones. Simply put, you cannot turn from the waist, and keep your head, shoulders and hands all aligned if you are slumped through your midsection. Additionally, for whatever reason, probably because I’m focused on the collarbones, I was  keeping my chest open too, which also helped me keep my shoulders back. Another problem solved!

IT band exercises 

I have long promised but failed to deliver to a number of you an outline of the exercises that I’ve been doing physical therapy for my IT band. If you don’t do anything to actively strengthen those important outside muscles, and the things they are attached to, I encourage you to do start doing so forthwith.  An IT band injury is really painful and takes forever to heal – I strongly recommend avoiding it at all costs!

Exercises that the physical therapist is having me focus on include:

  • Side planks – Holding for 30 seconds and also going up and down repeatedly in sets of 10
  • Regular planks
  • Clamshells: plan your side bend your knees and align yourself shoulder hips heal. Keeping your feet together open your legs leading with the knee that is on top. For extra resistance put a rubber band around your knees.
  • Sidesteps: Put the rubber resistance band around your ankles. Do a partial squat like you’re in ready position for playing tennis. Keeping your knees bent, move laterally.  This is best done down a long hallway or in your basement where no one is watching. If you’re doing it correctly, in addition to your adductors on the outside of your leading leg,  you’ll also feel your gluteus medius working on that side too.  Do 10-15 steps each direction, and repeat.

Here are some links with additional exercises and details, if you’re interested.


http://www.sportsinjuryclinic.net/sport-injuries/knee-pain/iliotibial-band-syndrome/strengthening-iliotibial-band-syndrome (see the 7 exercise routine the author developed – this is very similar to what one of my PT sessions looks like (though I do a bit more core, by adding the planks.)

Getting back in the swing of things

It was a gorgeous evening!

It was a gorgeous evening!

I’m back home (for a few weeks at least) and am getting back onto my daily schedule. I’m creaky, my bad knee is playing hell with me and I feel like a soup sandwich up there in the saddle, but nonetheless, enough good things are happening that I feel encouraged.

In my lesson tonight we were able to diagnose what I was doing that was causing some problems with left bend.  I love the fact that Christy makes “headroom” in lessons, taking time to think rather than just yelling “Bend! More bend! Come on, bend him!” as I’ve seen other trainers do.  At the walk, as we talked, I was moving Derby all over the arena, doing little serpentines, small circles and changes of direction from my seat and legs.  However, at the trot, I was a mess going left. We picked at it, and I realized that I was allowing my outside leg to creep forward, which pretty much negated my aids.  Once I repositioned myself, and made a point of keeping that leg long with the hip open, placing it a bit further back than my inside leg, things improved quickly for us.

My endurance is for crap at the moment but it’s getting a bit better each ride.  I’m hoping to be back at full strength soon.

In other news, over the last month, Derby has also had two chiro visits. Remember the awful canter video from a couple posts ago, in which he was swapping behind? I had Dr. Heinze of Fox Valley Equine see him, and he adjusted him, with immediate results.  The very next day Derby cantered comfortably both directions.  However, a few weeks later, he started showing signs of discomfort again.  I had Dr. Heinze back out,  and we’re hoping that Derbs will be able to go longer between adjustments, especially as he builds strength on his right side.

It should be pretty nice this weekend.  If I have time, I know two stinky horses that are at risk for bubble baths!

I ended the evening watching Christy ride Austin bareback.   She was having a great time – his gaits are smooth and very comfy, and according to her, his back is soft and comfy too.  Both definitely enjoyed themselves.

We also found out this week that this cute red boy can jump like the dickens.  He’s a cute and versatile horse and looks like he could be a cute children’s hunter, pony club wonder horse or a fun mount for an ammy who wants to dabble in everything.  He’s also for sale, but I get the sneaking feeling that Christy wouldn’t mind to much if he hung around for a while. 😉

My Schoolmaster

derby and me

He’s as good as Christy at diagnosing what I’m doing wrong.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and since I’ve ridden for that matter.  Between travel for work, and a nasty cold, it’s been more than a week since I last rode.   And when more than a few days passes between rides, I tend to fell pretty out of whack.

“Out of whack” has been a recurring theme for me lately, as we’ve been doing more work on my position.  We also determined that my hands have become unsteady, causing Derby to object stridently. So regaining some semblance of independence in my hands has been at the top of my list.

For my first ride back (yesterday) I spent a lot of time in two-point, reawakening my riding muscles (and garnering a protest from them this morning.)  Then, once I was warmed up, I started to build some connection by not shortening the reins, but by working on riding Derby out and down into contact.  By keeping my hands where they belong, above his withers, I was able to create contact that Derby could start to trust not to jab him in the mouth.

Any time I erred, and started to draw my hands back to my hips, my schoomaster would let me know immediately, by inverting and flinging his head.  As soon as I would push my hands forward, back to where they belong, Derby rewarded me by rounding and moving nicely.

Today I was able to accomplish more.  I could feel things clicking into place and we had some nice work.  Best of all, the work on my position has paid dividends, in the form of more effective aids.  In addition to moving forward nicely, Derby is also responding very well to my requests for lateral movement.  Christy has commented that it’s our job to create the space we want the horse to fill, and I’m starting to experience that first hand.

I have one more ride tomorrow night before heading out of town for a few days, and I have more travel coming up over the next couple weeks.  Things will be spotty for a while, but the feedback from my schoolmaster makes getting back on track easier!


More core.

New green duds

I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching Christy ride her horses, and while I always learn a lot, watching her develop Remy over the last year has been especially informative, chiefly because in taking the skinny young OTTB from the track to the dressage ring required her to instill rhythm, contact and cadence in the horse.  Within a few months of his arrival, Christy had Remy going well, and I especially enjoyed watching her work the long-legged boy at the trot, improving his use of his back.  They would go around the arena, doing circles and serpentines at a spanking gait, with Remy staying round and yielding nicely when Christy asked for bend.   I memorized what that looked like.  And I’m trying to emulate it.

I know that she really had to work for that nice gait on Remy when he was greener, and part of that work was finding – and holding – her balance.  While Derbs is no Remy, he is similarly sensitive to my position, providing me instant feedback on how I’m sitting.  The degree of his forward motion varies directly with my balance and position on his back.

So instead of “trotting like Remy,” really, I need to be thinking “sit like Christy” in order to produce the big, forward, flowing gaits I seek.   And I got a bit closer to getting there this week.

Thursday night’s lesson focused on many of the same things I noted in my post on Wednesday, and once we got warmed up, I had a very decent working trot going that Derby was pretty much sustaining.  But I have struggled with maintaining that gait when we do anything other than go down the long side.  So I was paying particular attention to my position (and the horse’s feedback) in my lesson.

As we continued working, things improved, until finally, we were doing a very nice 20m circle around Christy, who had become effusive in her praise.  I had contact, I had forward, I had bend — and it was all pretty easy, I didn’t have to work to hold it. What had I done?  Well, in addition to the checklist I noted in my blog post on Wednesday, I had added one more thing.  Core engagement.  When I engaged my core, I could feel my hip angles opening as my leg lengthened and I sat up taller.  Derby immediately responds to this – when I finally put myself into the right position, he rewards me immediately by rounding and carrying himself nicely.

So here’s my updated checklist:

  • Use the inside rein.  If he doesn’t respond to a softening of the inside rein, and continues to hang, get busy with the inside leg while insisting with the inside rein (e.g. a direct rein).  My desire to not hang on the inside rein has gone a bit too far.  I am allowed to use it.
  • When Derby feels “stuck” and braced against me, I need to mix it up.  Flex him, do serpentines and leg yields – anything to get that neck unbraced and softer.
  • Do as little as you can do but as much as you need to do to get the response you want – but be mindful.  If the horse doesn’t respond when I ask nicely, I have to next ask not-so-nicely.  Accepting no response results in a dull horse that’s dead to the aids.
  • Ride with my core engaged, and my leg long and draping around Derby’s sides. 

In other words, sit like Christy!

Fine adjustments

He has good reason to look confused.

My slow crawl back to respectability continues.  In my lesson last night, my endurance improved enough to do more trot work, and it was pretty decent trot work.  With Christy’s coaching, we were able to produce a nicely connected and round trot that had a little swing to it -and we were able to hold it consistently.

To get me there, Christy had me warm up by inviting Derby to stretch out and down.  Once I got there, she had me apply “back to front” aids – correcting my position and closing my legs to keep him forward, while continuing to ask Derby to stretch into the bit.  I needed a barrage of constant reminders, which to the innocent bystander may have sounded like harassment but honestly, until habits form, I appreciate the stream of commands from the center of the ring (“Check your posture! Tuck your butt, stretch and forward!”)

The “tuck your butt” suggestion is shorthand that Christy and I have developed that helps me process what she’s asking for so I can respond more quickly.   We’ve found that coaching commands that carry a visual association really help correct myself more quickly.  When I hear ‘butt tuck’ I respond by doing a few things – I elongate my spine, open my hips and check to make sure my seatbones aren’t pointed backward.   I have the bad habit of wanting to schooch back in my saddle, with my posterior almost on the cantle.  The “butt tuck” is also a reminder to me to put myself on my seatbones in the middle of the saddle.  When I hear Christy say that, it elicits a cascade of actions.

The best part of the ride was the fact that I could feel that the contact on the reins was alive and communicative.  That’s such a good feeling – you have the horse’s attention, he’s working over his back and maneuverable, and you can actually feel the inside hind leg in the reins.  Which sounds ridiculous, but for those who have actually felt that ….you know what I’m talking about.

We also picked apart a problem that evidenced itself with real clarity in the show ring a couple weeks ago, when we veered off course a bit during the sort free walk from F to E, winding up left of the target, almost at V.  In reviewing the video, Christy noticed that I had collapsed to the right, effectively pushing the horse to the left.   I started to experience that last night when we changed direction at the walk, and veered away from my intended path.  I tried to re-balance myself, but it wasn’t until Christy walked behind us and diagnosed what was going on that we could really fix what was going on.

I tend to carry my head tilted to the right.  At the walk, Christy had me sit on my seatbones, and lift my shoulders up up up, stretching and straightening my spine.  She then had me tip my head to the left, until it was straight.   Our walk improved.  However, we were still getting hung up at the trot going right.  Christy had us work both directions, watching intently.

“OK, I know what you’re doing,” she said after a few minutes.   I was leading with the wrong shoulder – twisting in the saddle. Essentially, I was almost in position to bend the other direction.    I straightened my posture once again, got balanced on my seatbones, and rolled my shoulders back, paying attention to the right shoulder (the one that wants to creep and roll forward.) Instantly, I could trot a circle without feeling like I had to work for it.

It’s amazing how these seemingly small changes and imbalances can have such a profound effect on the horse. I’m glad that we can take the time to fix these things, rather than trying to kick the hapless horse “through it.”

Regaining balance

Over the last few days, I’ve been working assiduously on my position, trying to regain effectiveness after dropping my stirrup a hole. It’s just a hole but as I noted in the previous post, it’s made a dramatic change in my position. It feels almost like I’m working without stirrups, which indicates how much I was relying on my stirrups when they were shorter.

I know that I’m going to be more effective with my aids riding with a slightly longer leg. However, it’s taking me a while to regain my base of support and stability.  My lesson on Thursday was challenging, and for the most part, we went around inverted. The trot was ugly and the canter wasn’t much better.  In my ride on Friday, I really focused on regaining some roundness, and things were a bit better.  Today we rode outside, and the quality of the ride improved again. Despite the distractions of the outdoor (it was cool and breezy, and approaching feeding time,) I was able to keep Derbs fairly round and all the gaits improved.

I’m definitely working some new muscles – my legs have been tired for the last few days which just blows my mind, given the relatively small degree of change.  Just one hole!  Here’s hoping that I get back to being fully effective soon.