One week, redux.

My improved poster lets Derby move more freely

I’m continuing to pick at my position and posture with Christy, but the quality of our rides continues to improve. On Monday, Derby and I unveiled the “new us” to Christy, and she was very happy with the significant progress she saw.  The improvement in forward and energy is evident when compared to my work prior to the show last month (“One Week.)

I still have a ton of work to do, but I’m struck by how my position influences the horse.  Really, it’s probably no surprise.  These animals can feel flies land on their hides.  The shifts in weight and balance that we riders think are subtle probably aren’t, in reality.

Now that I’m better balanced, Derby is moving forward much more freely.  And without a lot of help from me, he’s also moving uphill.  I tell you, once I get my act together, I’m going to have some fun with this sweet, lovely horse.

Christy shot some video so I could see how we’re doing, and one thing really jumped out at me.  While I sit fairly nicely circling left, the same cannot be said going right.  I am reverting back to the tendencies I exhibited earlier on Maddie – weighting one rein more heavily (the left one) and sitting crookedly (and unevenly) in the saddle.  This video doesn’t lie.  You can see me start to lean forward and close my hip when I change directions.

This unfortunate shot sums up what we started to tackle in tonight’s lesson, in which we worked on overall balance and took aim specifically on correcting my crookedness.  I have my homework for the weekend, and I hope to report good progress within a few days.

I'm starting to collapse.

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!

Canter Frankie and Call Me in the Morning

My friend Kim and her marvelous horse Frank

I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Kim, who allowed me to climb aboard her gelding Frankie last night.  My confidence has been wavering of late, and doubts have been creeping in which is never a good situation for a rider.  Horses are telepathic creatures and mirror their riders’ mental states.  A confidence building ride was needed.  Frank was just what the doctor ordered.

I’ve ridden him numerous times, and he’s a good, steady character who I trust.  As a second level horse, he has lots of training. However, he’s also a former school horse. He’s crafty and has all sorts of tricks in his bag for evading something he doesn’t want to do.

One thing I know Christy has in mind for our lessons is teaching me to be more assertive.  We both know that I can “bring it,” really sitting up, taking control and riding assertively when I’m goaded into it by a horse that’s feeling hot, fresh or spooky.  Some of my best riding has been when I’ve been seriously annoyed by my mount’s behavior, and I decide that I’m just not taking b.s. from a lower-order mammal any more.  Switching into survival mode when things get too scary for my tastes will also bring out my inner ass-kicker. Which is good. These are healthy responses to equine goofiness.

But that’s not the way I usually roll. My default mode is much less demanding.  Horses can steal rein length on me easily. I tend not to absolutely require them to be on the bit and round at all times.  I allow them to ignore my aids, instead of responding promptly.    These are but a few of my milquetoast habits.   The challenge that Christy has outlined for me is to elevate my riding on an ongoing basis.

So, last night, on the relative safety of Frankie, Christy started to demand more of me, which started with requiring me to actually get (not just demand) more from the horse.

After Frank stretched and we started to go to work, the commentary from the middle of the ring was rapid-fire. “Stretch him, make him round,” Christy told me. “I’m trying!” I said, while Frank mentally tallied my number.

“DO IT NOW.”  Christy commanded.

For some reason, at that moment, “balancing rein” popped into my head.  I closed my fingers on the outside rein and took hold, softening the inside rein while asking for some bend unequivocally with my leg.  Frank rounded, stretching into the bit.

“There it is! Nice!” Christy purred.  Well, not exactly purred, but you know what I mean.

“Keep him there!”

My subconscious must have been playing Trivial Pursuit with my long term memory files, because at that moment, a favorite quote bubbled up into my thoughts: “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”

That’s what Jedi-master Yoda told a young Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie, as he attempted to harness the Force and I watched, goggle-eyed, from the back of a station wagon at the drive in. She’s a lot prettier than Yoda, and she doesn’t wriggle her ears when speaking to you, but I suspect Christy has a more than a modicum of wise old Yoda in her.  I internalized ‘do’ rather than “try” at that moment. It’s an important difference in mindset, and it produces a different outcome.

It turns out that Jane Savoie agrees with Yoda (and Christy) on the subject of trying versus doing.  In her book That Winning Feeling! Jane tells readers to eliminate “try” from their vocabularies, saying that “try” sounds like a half-hearted effort.  Don’t try to do your best, she says.  Do your best.

So, resolving to do rather than to merely try, we moved into a trot, and Frank popped through his shoulder, flopping his ears at me and saying “gotcha.”  Christy noted that he wasn’t expending much effort and was behind my leg.  “Use the whip!” she said.

It never takes too much with a Thoroughbred, and Christy isn’t advocating a beating. But using artificial aids like a whip or spurs effectively trains the horse to respond crisply when asked nicely and quietly.  Those Grand Prix horses you see executing complex movements to the barely discernable aids of their riders are uuber responsive.  At the higher levels, you don’t see riders kicking their horses into a gait.  And the time to start thinking about developing and reinforcing responsiveness is now.

I didn’t reach back and give Frank a crack. Instead, I more or less tapped his flank, but that’s all it took.  He decided that I was serious, and stepped out into a nicer trot.  From there I was able to get him rounder.  More purring came from the middle of the arena.

A few minutes later, I needed to grab a quick walk break.  Before I could even half-halt him, Frank stopped as I was mid-post, butt out of the saddle.  Why? Had he read my mind?  No.  I had taken my legs off when I mentally decided to take a break, and that was all Frank needed.

It didn’t feel good and I was told that particular transition was, in fact, all kinds of ugly.  Christy reminded me that a good transition needs to be ridden forward into the bridle.  I asked for an upward transition, kicking and clucking, and got it three or four strides after I started asking.   Groaning came from the middle of the arena.  I performed a crappy transition down, and earned myself a lecture on ye olde half halt.

“You know how to do this,” Christy said. “And get him in front of your leg!  Get the upward transition!”

I collected my thoughts and asked Frank to round, and then walk more energetically.  As I asked for the upward transition, I tapped him with the whip and got a good response.

“That’s better,” was the assessment from the middle of the ring.

We did a few more transitions.  I was keeping the trot quality decent and the upward transitions became very prompt, but wasn’t getting the half halts, and my downward transitions were pretty sloppy.  I knew I needed to mentally and physically ride forward into the halt.  I resolved to ride forward, even with the halt in mind. We did another walk/trot upward transition, and Frank was Johnny on the spot, earning us a compliment from Christy.  I posted a few strides, sat softly while keeping leg on, then half halted from my core and he walked, finally garnering Christy’s approval.

“Okay, now I want to see a canter transition,” Christy said.  “Errr,” I thought, and then told myself to shut up. “Yes, Boss,” I replied out loud, mentally saluting and snapping  my heels together.

We did a nice upward transition and I asked Frank for some energy at the trot.  I had to get him in front of my leg.  Things felt pretty good, so I held my outside rein, sat gently and asked for the canter by raising my inside seat bone, which (I’m told) invites the canter by making space for a larger stride.   Frank stepped neatly into his gorgeous, uphill canter.  Within a few seconds I could feel myself grinning as Frank rolled along.  I was somewhat aware of Christy saying something about swinging my hips and following the motion.  I did, and I felt great – balanced, soft and secure leg, responsive and willing horse.   In short, I felt like a million bucks. Lots of horsemen say there’s little that a good canter can’t cure, and they’re right.

We transitioned down to the trot on my terms, and I was still grinning, and Christy was too. “That was my goal for you tonight,” she said. “Good job.”

We wound up the lesson, talking about getting me on to some different horses, in order to  hone my ability to think, feel and respond to various things different mounts throw at me. Christy also thinks that this will help me realize that I’m a better rider than I think I am.  Maybe she’s right – and I like her holistic approach of dealing with the bats in my belfry as well as the tactical ride I give the horse I’m riding.  I’m going to make a point of pursuing rides on a variety of mounts  – a few of my friends at the barn have offered me a ride on their horses, and I’m going to take them up on their generous offers for which I’m very grateful.

A fresh start

I believe that Winston Churchill is credited with the saying, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”  Today was my first ride after a two week hiatus, and boy, it felt great.   It wasn’t an eventful or even particularly sophisticated ride.   But I am happy to report that my position is still solid, and I remember how to steer (with my inside leg and outside rein!)

I decided to capitalize on the time off by trying to erase the left-rein-hanging issues I’ve been having, hoping that the time off would also diminish learned responses from Maddie.   So, I made a very focused effort to while also not giving away the right rein.   Going counterclockwise, I held that outside rein, kept my inside leg active, and made a point of giving the contact in the left rein continually.

Mads was clearly appreciative, stretching very nicely into contact.  I encouraged her, giving her rein and riding her in a lower frame (we both need to regain fitness), and we went around with nice contact, and more importantly, a marked lack of neck-bracing and rein-hanging.  Toward the end of the ride, I was really able to get her moving, adjusting her gait with half-halts, and alternately asking her for bigger and smaller strides.  Despite the time off, she did really well, bringing her back up and rounding very nicely.  I do love how sensitive this mare is, and wow, she really takes a half-halt well.

I’m looking forward to our ride tomorrow, and then am hoping to re-establish my routine this week, starting with a lesson on Monday.  However, the weather doesn’t look like it’s going to cooperate fully – we have another stretch of hellaciously cold weather coming mid-week.  My personal cut-off is 10 degrees – below that, I’m not interested in riding.  But those cold nights are good for groundwork, so we’ll likely have some un-mounted work on Tuesday.



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, 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!


Moment by moment

Cantering to the right

The last few days have been illuminating, starting on Thursday.  I didn’t ride on Thursday- work was catching up with me, and I had zero energy – so I gave my lesson to one of Christy’s other students, and she rode Maddie.  It has been a long time since I’ve seen Mads go and it was fun to watch – and revealing.    Mads went beautifully for H. and she didn’t hang on the left rein whatsoever.  That provided more conclusive proof that the issues with the left rein are operator error – and not the big mare’s fault.

So when I rode Saturday, I was resolved to practice what Christy had me work on during our most recent lesson – giving the left rein when bending or circling to the right, while being sure to hold that right (outside) rein.   I worked at it – somewhat fruitlessly – giving the inside rein, while trying to keep my hands even and avoid letting the right rein get longer – but my efforts didn’t produce the quality bending I was hoping to generate.

But then it happened.  I caught myself shifting my right shoulder forward – effectively giving the right rein away.  Eureka!  So now I know what my next personal project is – fixing my shoulder alignment.  A review of some recent videos provided additional confirmation. But at least I know what the underlying cause of my difficulties, so I can take aim at fixing the issue.

Today Steph and I headed out to the barn early, to beat the rush because we both wanted to work on some things with minimal distractions.  I wanted to work on making my transitions more crisp, and (of course) the rein balance info.  We warmed up stretching and bending, and I really focused on keeping my right shoulder back, even with my left, rather than letting it creep forward.  I did catch myself a couple times, but overall, I was pretty happy with the way things were going.

Mads gives me a nice "little trot," reducing the length of her stride, and bringing her back up, in response to my half halt

I took my nice bending and started to work on transitions, shifting from walk to trot to walk again, asking for a prompt response from the mare, while also keeping her round.  As we worked, I found I found I had a nicely forward horse and so I asked for the canter, and got a a decent upward transition.

It’s easy to look good on Mads – she has the nicest, most rhythmic canter and it’s fun to ride.  We haven’t worked much in this gait, and I need to work on swinging my hips, staying with (and influencing the gait.)  That’s on the list of things to do.

Mada has the nicest uphill canter. Now I just need to do a better job of riding it!

I was really happy with our short canter, and the downward transition was nice too.  I kept her at a trot after that canter, mixing up the pattern, because Mads sometimes does start to anticipate the canter, taking it upon herself to offer it freely at every subsequent upward transition.   So I redoubled the transitions, throwing in some halts, too.  As much as she wanted to hop ahead, Mads was very responsive to the half halt, and I liked the quality of the little trot she gave me, though I did have to work hard with my core to hold her there.

It was a satisfying ride, laying groundwork for the next set of skills I need to improve.

(Special shout out to Steph, thanks for taking all the video!)