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.