Back in the saddle – literally

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It’s been ages since I’ve updated the blog, and truth be told, I haven’t had any real news to share, owing to the fact that my lovely, shiny new horse Fred broke his pelvis about a month after he arrived.

Thankfully, the fracture was not displaced, and Fred was able to bear weight comfortably while he healed. However, The healing process took four months, and we just got the green light to go back to work a couple weeks ago.

All was not immediately rosy, however, because if you recall for the last couple installments here on the blog, I was struggling with saddle fit issues.

Once more into the crucible, I thought.

A friend loaned me her Bates Extra Wide dressage saddle, and while it was an improvement, it wasn’t perfect. On a whim, I swung by my my local tack shop to eyeball consignment saddles there.

I have a pretty strong preference for buying used saddles, because I’ve determined that I simply can’t make a decision on a saddle with just one light gentle ride, and let’s face it – most places won’t let you **really** ride in one of their bnew saddles.  In order to assess fit and balance, I prefer to ride in a saddle for several days in the row, to ensure both the horse and I are comfortable, balanced and happy.

imageLo and behold, I was in luck, for there on the rack was a Schleese JES, with the size seat and tree I was looking for. I scooped it up, swiped my credit card, and headed straight for the barn.

Upon arrival, I gave Fred quick, cursory brushing and then plonked the saddle straight onto his back. It appeared to be balanced, and best of all, it seemed to fit very nicely on the sides of his withers, with the panels sitting flush against his body. I tacked him up, adding a fleece pad for a little extra cushion, because the flocking is kind of hard, and off we went.

Fred signaled his approval immediately, stretching into good contact, something that had been evading me with less comfortable saddles.

Now, in addition to being as squishy and out of shape as my mount, I’m also recovering from a two week long bout of bronchitis. We didn’t put it a ton of work, but I was satisfied that the saddle was reasonably comfortable for Fred.

I texted Christy with the message: Put me on your schedule for tomorrow!

I did short lesson with her tonight, and she said that we were ahead of where we left off, despite our downtime, something which we both attributed to improved saddle fit.

I’m calling the fitter tomorrow, to see about scheduling an appointment for her to come out to evaluate and flock the saddle. In the meantime, I’ll put a few more rides into it and be sure that both Fred and I are in agreement. It would be wonderful if we could put the saddle hunt behid us and move on with our lives! In the meantime though, I’m thrilled that Fredders is feeling good, and that we’re starting to get back to work.

Joy, and Pain

ctbs 1 19 trot

We had our first lesson at the new barn with Christy last night. I’ve ridden Derby exactly once in the last two weeks, and prior to that, we had time off over the holidays, so I really wasn’t sure what we’d be able to do for her.  However,  all the rides we have had in the month since moving have been really nice, so I was optimistic.

Christy was really happy what she saw. She picked at a few things but for the most part we had a solid ride. She did find and fix issue that I had overlooked pretty quickly, however, and it made big difference.  I was allowing my legs to rotate outward from the hip, and not draping them around the horse.  I discovered that I had my feet cocked at an angle in the stirrup, too, placing more weight on the outside edges of my foot.  Focusing on stretching down through my leg, through and out the ball of my foot, solved the problem pretty quickly – my legs were draping and more effective right off the bat. I need to school this because I’ve let it slide over the last month, but it’s something I can work on independely.

Speaking of independent work, I diagnosed and fixed a saddle balance problem all by myself recently.  I’ve been well schooled in saddle balance by Christy, and I noticed a couple weeks ago that things were feeling a bit out of whack, as I was starting to try to climb over the top of the pommel when I posted.  I was on the lookout for changes in saddle fit, as Derby is getting better turnout (larger group, and larger paddock) and much better food.  I applied some of the tests for saddle balance I’ve learned from Christy, including her “stand-stand-sit” test which is a stone-cold truth-teller about how well your saddle was balanced, and yep, it was a struggle — when your saddle is balanced, you can do laps of stand-stand-sit easily, without batting an eye.

I took my saddle home, got a screwdriver and my shim kit (if you’re a new reader, I ride in a newer Bates Isabell with the Riser System) and swapped the 8mm forward shim for the 4mm version.

It’s only a 4 millimeter difference on either side but changing the shim produced a magic effect  – I’m in really good balance now and the horse also approves – he tells me by moving easily and giving me his back.

I’ve seen a big change in Derby since moving to the new barn.  He hasn’t put a foot wrong – no spooks – and seems relaxed and happy.  Our rides are our best ever.  I know the footing at the old barn was bad – it was hard, it would freeze, and the barn owner didn’t groom the ring regularly.  In retrospect, I think it make moving downright painful for the horses.  However, what I didn’t realize is the footing affected more than how the horse moved – it affected my ability to ride in a balanced, connected manner that was safer, too. Anyway, I’ll be apologizing to Derby for not moving him sooner. I’ve only recently realized how I dreaded going to the old place, if only because going to the new barn is a joy.

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!

 

 

 

A fitting end?

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To make a long and uninteresting story short, I’ve continued to be plagued by saddle issues, and finally concluded that my Albion, with it’s deeper seat and decent-sized blocks just doesn’t work for me.   I need smaller blocks and a more open seat. to accommodate my decided preference for the shorter stirrups my tight hips and often sore knees demand.

I have a Passier Relevant en route for a test ride, and have a fitter coming to the barn on Friday.  However, in the meantime, I’ve been riding with a friend’s old saddle – a brown Passier Grand Gibert.  I like it and even more importantly, Derby approves too.  Gone is the bracing and resistance, and the exhausting exhortations to MOVE FORWARD.  He’s clearly more comfortable, and I am too.

Working a stretch, something other saddles made impossible.

Working a stretch, something other saddles made impossible.

Derby moves forward more freely in the Passier, and is much more willing to stretch, which really puts  my bad (BAD!) habit of pulling back on display.  In my lesson last night, Christy zeroed in on the fact that when I pull, I also collapse my core, which sets up a host of other problems, in addition to discouraging the horse from doing what I want him to do, which is to stretch into contact.  I’ll be drilling stretch stretch stretch for the next few rides.

Anyway.  The Passier GG isn’t perfect – it’s too wide for Derbs and I’m using a Fleeceworks pads with quite a few shims in the front pockets (two Thinline shims and a Fleeceworks memory foam front shim.)  This set up is comfortable for him and balanced for me, allowing me to be more effective.

I  hope to God we’re getting close to the end of the saddle fitting odyssey.  For the time being, I’m not complaining.  Rides are finally more fun than frustrating, for both me and the Derbinator.

 

So happy to be riding outside!

So happy to be riding outside!

Fit to be tried

 

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It’s been a long and frustrating month. After a few nice rides, Derby told me something was bugging his back, and I felt like I was fighting my saddle. so I switched from my Albion K2 to a fairly new Wintec 500, taking advantage of the riser system to make the saddle better fit Derby’s withers (and fairly meager top line.)

We had some okay rides but nothing great.  For the most part, the last few weeks have, at the least, been exhausting and, at worst, have been just monstrously frustrating, marked by a resistant horse that just. won’t. move. forward.

Christy wondered if the saddle wasn’t impinging upon Derby’s shoulder, and indeed, it was.  When he was tacked up, I checked, and she was right – reaching down between his shoulder and the saddle, I could feel the shoulder blade hitting the panel.   We talked it over, and decided that the hollows on either side of Derby’s typical TB withers were the culprit.

 

Warming up.  He was moving out, at last.

Warming up. He was moving out, at last.

The next night, I mustered my entire inventory of saddles (4) (Jesus), pads (2 sheepskin half pads, a Mattes correction pad, a Fleeceworks Perfect balance pad) and shims (two ThinLIne pads that have been cut to fit the Mattes pad, multiple different Fleeceworks options, felt Mattes imports, and for good measure, a yoga mat and box cutter, just in case,) and headed to the barn.

I widened the Wintec gullet, and added shims. Nope.  Derby was still resistant, bracing and twisting his neck, and saying ‘Owwww.’  I tried the Albion with something that didn’t work, can’t remember at this point which pad it was.  Plopped the Wintec on top of my Pro Choice Air Ride western pad, with the built up wither relief pads.  Thank God that didn’t prove to be the miracle, because I won’t kid you, it looked pretty stupid.

Finally I pulled the Albion back out – after all, this is the saddle that was (once) fitted to Derby.   It does have more flocking in the panels that fill the hollows next to the wither.  I plopped it on Derby, with just a saddle pad, no half pad or anything else.  Admittedly skeptical, I got on anyway. Things were better.  When I asked him to go forward, he actually complied, rather than swishing his tail and pinning his ears.

I need to regain my position - the Albion makes me work for it - but the horse is approving.

I need to regain my position – the Albion makes me work for it – but the horse is approving.

I rode for maybe 10 minutes, and Christy agreed that we were heading in the right direction. But after being on and off Derby for better than an hour and a half, I took mercy on my patient horse and called it quits.

The next evening, I saddled up using the Albion with my Fleeceworks Perfect Balance pad, using just the front shims.  We had the best ride we’ve had in a while.  Derby felt more supple and flexible than he has in a while, and I was able to get him forward without begging. We even did a bit of canter work and the transitions were prompt and smooth.

So this is all  great and certainly encouraging, but a new problem has cropped up, and it’s all mine.  I’ve been struggling with (among other things) flexibility in my ankles.  Getting my heels down has been a challenge – I’ve been unable to drop them below stirrup level.  I raised the issue with my Pilates coach, and have been doing extra curricular work, using a standing desk for work and standing on an array of items, such as Foot Wakers and a balance cushion, working on stretching my heels down and improving flexibility in my ankles. I’m making progress – I an now actually drop my heel below my stirrup, enabling me to use my leg more correctly.   But I’m still not solid in my base of support – this is a work in progress. However, if I have the saddle sting started, and can now concentrate a bit more on me, hopefully I’ll be able to build my stability in the saddle, and refinement of my aids.

 

 

 

 

Yep. Saddle fit.

I am going to print out the following notes in 64 point type and glue them to the inside of my tack trunk:

  • If all of a sudden it seems that you’ve forgotten how to ride, your saddle is probably out of balance, meaning the fit is also changing.

  • And before things really start to go to Hell in a hand basket and get to the point where you are convinced that you have developed a severe and sudden onset of EA (equestrian Alzheimers’), note that things that once seemed simple automatic will become difficult.  And by things I mean steering.  This is a red flag. Pay attention to it.

  • If, out of the blue, your lower back starts hurting, your horse is going like a green donkey and you find yourself wanting to do incredibly stupid things like cross your left rein over to the withers to the vicinity of your right elbow in order to get. INTO. the. damn corner you might have a saddle fit problem.  In case you missed the point above, these are more red flags.

  • If for the very life of you it is impossible to access the inside hind or even get the horse on the bit, you might have a saddle fit problem.

  • If you ride one horse like a drunken monkey, and then ride another horse quite well on the same day, chances are pretty good you’re fighting an imbalance in the saddle.  Stop crying, it isn’t you.  (And I’m not just saying that.)

  • If you dismount and uncharacteristically want to kick your adorable horse in the shins en route to drowning yourself in a water tank because you SUCK and can’t effectively ride a bar stool much less a quality 20m circle, you might want to look to your saddle.

Vent over.

After a chat with Christy, who is also having an episode of the saddle fit fits, I put the narrowest gullet into one of my Wintecs, and promptly had a ride that restored some hope.   The second I sat in that saddle, I knew I was in business. I could feel my seat bones again!  Praise the Lord!  I was able to put the walk together in about a nanosecond, and got much better trot work too.  We did diagnose the fact that the I need to reinstall some buttons and responsiveness but tonight was a move in the right direction.

 

Old love, new love.

My wonderful old Stubben Romanus.  Love this saddle.

My wonderful old Stubben Romanus. Love this saddle.

Just in time for Valentine’s day, I fell back in love with something old, and had a brief flirtation with something new. Lest anyone’s imagination run wild, I’m speaking of my old old Stubben saddle and Christy’s newest horse, respectively.

First, the saddle.  Despite my lack of posting, I’ve been keeping fairly busy with Derby, between business trips and incredibly foul freezing weather. His abscess is healed and I’m trying to get us back on a schedule. However, as I noted in previous posts, he threw my some curve balls in the form of unusual resistance to going forward and intermittent back soreness.

All of this points to saddle fit, so despite the fact that he’s not changed much at all since I got a new saddle a bit over a year ago, the fact remained that he was telling me loud and clear that something was bugging him.

So I hauled out my old Stubben Romanus.  I bought this truly ancient saddle for a song a few years ago.  I loved its minimal construction – flat seat and blocks that are barely larger than a pencil.  It has a narrow twist and long flap.   Despite the rock hard seat and ice-slick leather, I. LOVE. this. saddle.  It’s thirty years old if it’s a day, and it’s faded to a weird green hue but I don’t care. I love how balanced an unconstrained I am in this saddle.

While it appears to be nicely balanced on Derby, it also appears to be too wide.  There is worryingly spare clearance twixt gullet and wither.  Still, I tried it.  Tacked up, checked the clearance.  Two fingers.  Got on.  Checked the clearance. One finger.  Sweated a bit.

And then proceeded to have the nicest, roundest, happiest horse I’ve had in a while.    Who was also quite responsive to light leg aids for basic lateral requests (bend, a bit of leg yield).

Tooling along in the Stubben. We both liked it.

Tooling along in the Stubben. We both liked it.

All righty then.

The Stubben isn’t the answer, because it is not a good fit for Derbs.  However, after having a couple nice rides in it, I put the Albion back on Derby today, and he went nicely.  It didn’t seem to be quite the quality we’ve had in the Stubben but relative to other rides, he was good.

So what is going on here?  Was Derby being a cow due to lack of work?  Was the soreness the product of turnout goofiness, a slip on the ice or lack of movement?  Who knows.

He’s on a schedule, and I’ll alternate saddles this week to try to get a fix on what’s what.

In other news, I am making progress on making truly independent hands my habit, though I’m not there – I still need to remind myself.  I’m also working hard on getting rid of the bad habit of pulling the reins back toward my thighs rather than riding the horse out into the contact.   When I get it right, Derby lets me know, as the quality of our contact and his roundness improves immeasurably.

I’ve also been working on my seat and leg, dropping my stirrups each ride, and some two-point work, at both trot and canter.

Austin, with Christy up.

Austin, with Christy up.

I also had a really fun lesson on Austin, the latest addition to Christy’s herd.  He’s a super cute paint that is also pretty fancy and responsive but super comfortable to ride.  She’s put quite a bit of training into him and he’s developing beautifully, both in terms of muscle and in terms of talent.   Riding him was very affirming, but a great experience, because I’m trying to pick up additional rides here and there when I can, on different horses.

Riding Austin was also a reminder for me how responsive a horse can/should be.   When I asked correctly, Austin immediately complied with my aids, bending,  using his hind end and lateral movements – promptly and with no fuss.  It was such a pleasure riding him.I hope I can talk her into another lesson on him again soon. And I need to work on developing similar responsiveness in Derby.