Don’t get through it. Perform it.

A nice moment. One of several, for a change.

Day by day, things are getting a bit easier with the new, longer leathers and subsequent position changes.  I’m still a long way from being solid and strong in the saddle but I can feel improvement daily.   In today’s lesson, we made a show-ring quality trot a priority.  Sounds easy, but for me, at the moment, it’s not.   Putting the horse together, while maintaining a decent forward gait in a seat that still feels a bit precarious isn’t easy and the relative lack of stability gives me some heebie jeebies now and then.

Wake up, Derby. We need to work hard on quality next, but my seat is coming along.

The ride started out a little “eh.”  I will freely admit that I’ve not been riding as forwardly as I should, due to the above mentioned issues with the new position.  I have been doing some canter work though, and I needed it tonight, to get my pokey pony into gear.

In reality, though, the pokiness wasn’t entirely Derby’s doing.  When I straighten up, open up my hip angles and drape my calves along his sides, he goes forward nicely,  I’ve been reverting to trying to drive with my foot hovering on the brake.

Once we got warmed up, we ran through Intro A.  The results were uninspiring.   “Don’t just get through it,” Christy insisted.  “Perform it.”

A-ha.  That gave me a new (and badly needed) perspective.  I was just going through the movements, and it showed. I rode it again, this time with some purpose.  It got better, especially as I paid attention to riding from my seat and legs, and staying out of Derby’s mouth, quieting my hands.

Free walk. This is coming along.

We then went through Intro B.  Finally, things were clicking into gear. As I rode Derby more forwardly, Christy observed that he really started to carry himself.  It felt great, and in addition to some nice roundness and contact, I also had his back up and his back end under me.  I love that feeling – when you have the horse packaged up, they feel so together, responsive and maneuverable.

Overall, I’m finally able to produce some decent gait quality and keep it for more than just a fleeting instant.  I hope we keep progressing!

Tomorrow I need to send in my first show entry.  It’s a schooling show up at Silverwood, and I’m going to ride Intro A and B.  I was hoping to ride C but as you can see from the canter picture above, we aren’t ready to take that into the show ring.  First things first – I have to re-establish the basics before I can even think of doing more.  We’re not ready to really perform the canter in public … yet.  For now, I’ll have to content myself with how pretty the late afternoon sun makes everything look, especially our new periwinkle duds.  🙂

A friend complimented me on matching the clouds. Yep. Meant to do that.

When one hole feels like one mile

We tried a little something different in my lesson last night, and I’m feeling it today.

We started out doing a little sitting trot, which isn’t something I work on much, but as we warmed up walking, I had a really nice walk going from Derby, and I commented to Christy that his active walk (and following it with my seat) was just what my achy, crampy self needed.

She had me essentially “follow” with my seat into a trot, closing my legs and inviting the upward transition with my seat.  Then as we got going, Christy had me feel (and control) my seatbones, un-clamp my knees and relax my lower leg, draping my calves around the horse.   While I’ve sat the trot before, last night was the first time I feel like I really started to get an inkling of how to sit the trot effectively.   And by inkling I do mean fleeting glimpse, but it was still an “ah-ha” moment for me.  With Christy’s coaching,  I was able to follow with my seat and get Derby to round a bit.  And then the burn started.  I knew I was doing it right and engaging my core when suddenly my lower abs started to burn.  It felt like I was doing micro-crunches in time with Derby’s stride.  It was a cool feeling and I can’t wait to work on this a bit more and get to the point where I can actually sit effectively.  In reality, this is stuff I won’t need for, oh years (in terms of competition) but it was still cool to do, and importantly, the exercise got me in touch with my seatbones.  We did some walk-halts, with me just shifting the angle of my seatbones  (really, that was it)  and each time Derby halted nicely – on contact, square and balanced.

As promised, I did drop my stirrups while doing some of the sitting work.   I really need to learn not to do stuff that gives Christy ideas, because she liked the way my leg looked when I dropped the stirrups.

I’ve been riding with them a bit short, because I was having some issues with my hip locking up, which then stilled my seat and caused me to arch my back.  Christy has had me work with a bit shorter leather, and that has done the trick.  She dropped my stirrups a hole, and had me give it a try.

It’s amazing what a difference that hole made.  It may as well have been a mile.  Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic, I know ,but really it did effectively put my leg in a whole new position, moving my knee off my saddle’s knee block and changing my hip angle.  Posting felt very weird at first.  Christy had me focus on posting in a more upright posture, thinking of rising straight from my hips.   She also had me keep my calves wrapped softly around Derby’s sides.  It wasn’t pretty and didn’t feel good, but I’m going to stick with it.  Better now than never! I feel much better with the longer leather – it’s easier on my knees, and, as Christy noted, it puts me in the position the saddle was was designed for.   It’s never fun messing with your position but I know it will feel better soon.  In the meantime, I’m feeling the effects of last night’s ride in my legs today.  More Advil, please!

 

Do you *really* ride every stride?

I had the pleasure of riding two spooks over the last couple days, including a pretty big one on Saturday.  Derby was apparently stunned to see humans walking around the outdoor, and teleported sideways and then thundered across the arena.  During the episode I lost a stirrup, and had enough time to think “Oh, crap” and then “I’m coming off” and then “No, I’m not coming off, I’m okay” and then “Can I get my stirrup back and keep him in this this canter for a good long while?”

I couldn’t regain the stirrup while Derby continued to be silly, but I was able to get him down to a trot pretty quickly, at which point I grabbed my stirrup and put him back to work.  I did the ‘cloverleaf’ pattern I used to ride when I needed to get Maddie’s head back in the game.  I use relatively small circles (about 12m) and change direction and bend constantly.  It’s my default pattern for those “sit up and ride” moments. Once I had his back up and a good connection and was in control of the hind legs, I headed back down the long side. Derby tried to spook again, earning a spur firmly in his side, while I growled and gave him a spank with my whip.  He did veer off course but I was able to block a bigger reaction.   We did another couple turns of the cloverleaf again, crossed the diagonal, went back down the long side with no incident going the other way. I switched direction, went down the long side going the same direction as the original spook, and Derby was fine.  At that point, we were more than finished for the day.

This got me thinking about something Christy and I’ve spoken about several times – riding every stride, meaning that you literally manage every moment of the ride.  I don’t do this. I should.  I do ride every stride when I’m dealing with a situation like the aforementioned spook.  Which drives Christy a bit nuts, I think, because, when I really ride with intent and attention, things get a lot better.

I really need to get more out of myself.  One thing that has helped me is “homework,” meaning I take exercises from my lessons and really practice them, not going through the motions but really working on quality results.  I’ve also noticed that Derby is more likely to spook when I start to get tired, toward the end of the ride. That, I suppose, is more incentive for me to get my act together, and keep it there. Though if anyone out there has any ideas for maintaining focus,

Maintaining position while Maddie takes a close look at the jump standards.

The good news is that I’m regaining my seat and balance, and my confidence is intact despite Derby’s recent antics.  The work I did while riding Maddie on my seat has continued to pay off, and my lower leg is now pretty steady and quiet.

An ugly moment but I'm plugged into the tack. My lower leg hasn't moved and is providing a good base of support.

However, the recent events have recommitted me to improving my seat even more.  I’ve agreed to start dropping my stirrups in lessons (just a bit to start!).

I know from personal experience that (for me at least) confidence stems from building my competence. I’m glad I was able to stick with these recent spooks, which have been good tests of my seat.  But in my mind, I don’t think one can ever have too much stability int he saddle.  This won’t be terribly fun but it will be worth it.

Maintaining position as Maddie takes a really close look at some jump standards.

Well, that didn’t go as planned.

After working so hard yesterday, I was eager for my lesson today, and I arrived at the barn early to deal with the very muddy horse I assumed I would find.  Derby, however, was pretty much pristine, despite the soupy conditions out in the paddocks.  He had been alone today, as his pasture mate Remy had to have a shoe replaced, and evidently he didn’t move around much.  There were no spatters on his tummy, he was just dirty from the fetlocks down.

As pleased as I was to not be confronted by a horse that was liberally coated with goo, in retrospect, it would have been better if he moved around a bit more today.  Once we got going – barely going – in our lesson, it was evident that something was wrong. I hopped off, and fetched a longe line.   As I came back into the arena, Christy handed me the reins and palpated Derby’s rump.  Gentle pressure caused him to really flinch.  Derbs was afflicted with a very sore patootie.

I was pretty surprised by this.  Yes, we worked hard yesterday.  But I wasn’t doing a lot of transitions, and we are so not anywhere close to doing anything collected.   However, Christy reminded me that we have upped the ante, and both Derby and I are doing a lot more these days.

On the longe Derby loosened up, and promptly surprised us both by flashing some really fancy trot – by far the nicest we’ve seen from this horse.   As I was standing there slackjawed, Christy said, “Well, your horse definitely isn’t broken!”

I got back on, and Christy decided to give the horse a bit of a break, and to torture me instead.  I had told her that Iwas having problems keeping my lower leg still – I’m still carrying too much weight on my stirrups, and as a result, my lower leg moves around a lot when I post.   On Sunday when I encountered this, I alternated posting  with standing a couple beats, then posting a couple, then standing …. doing so helps me “feel” the correct spot for my leg.  However, since I was squarely in Christy’s cross hairs, and because this is a problem caused by lack of strength on my part, Christy had  me get into two point, keeping my weight on my inner thighs. My test for whether or not I’m doing this correctly is letting my stirrups “rattle” on the bottom of my boot – they can’t rattle and move around if I’m really leaning on them.  I did a lap of that before calling uncle.  Christy then had me post from a half-seat, keeping my legs engaged and butt out of the saddle.    This is my homework for the next few days.  We’re going to move to posting without stirrups in short order.  It’s not fun but I’m going to bear down and get it done.

We did have an interesting moment right at the beginning of the ride, as I was just starting to warm up.   Christy wasn’t happy with what she saw, and had me drop my stirrups and stretch.  Fortuitously, she grabbed :51 of video which illustrated something pretty important about the problems I’m having.  Here it is:

At the beginning of the video, watch me carefully.  Do you see my hips moving?  No. You don’t.  Instead, I’m moving my shoulders.  The horse’s movement is not being absorbed by my seat. It’s “coming out” my shoulders.  My body is essentially acting like a lever.  Now, look at Derby’s walk.  It’s tending toward lateral. (Nice.) His back isn’t swinging.  Other than his cute lime green saddle pad and clean shiny self, there’s not a lot to like.

At about the :28 mark, I start to make the adjustments Christy suggests.  I still my shoulders, and start to let my hips really follow the horse’s movement.  Almost instantly, you can see Derbs take a larger stride with his hind legs.  His back comes up a bit, and he develops a nice, 4-beat cadence.     I think Christy caught kind of a profound moment in this little clip, and I’m glad she did.  That little change made a big difference for the horse!

So, onward and upward.  Tomorrow we’ll do some nice stretchy work, and I will spend some quality time in two-point.

Tightening the screws

Christy has figured out an important fix to my position, and we’re working on developing my muscle memory for keeping my core really engaged, my legs softly back, my calves gently against the horse, my knees relaxed, my hips angles open and swinging and my leg long and draping.   I’m definitely in the “hard’ phase of the “Hard, Easy, Habit, Beautiful” progression described by George Morris. It’s worth it, though.  When I do manage to balance myself and get my knees off the saddle blocks, Derby’s gaits improve dramatically.

We might have been happy with this moment a month ago, but not now.

Tonight Christy upped the ante on me a bit, asking me to hold my contact and really push the horse into the bridle from behind, creating more uphill movement.  In doing this she took dead aim at a bad habit of mine – I tend to give the reins when the horse pulls into contact, and I wind up dumping him on his forehand.

Here’s a stellar example:  You can see clearly here how I’ve totally pushed my shoulders forward and straightened my arms, so even though my fingers are closed, I’ve given him a ton of rein.  Derby has eagerly accepted, and has gone onto his forehand.

So while the trot quality is nice and the contact is solid, I’m failing miserably here to give Derbs the support he’s seeking, and I’m losing the opportunity to gather power an energy when I give away the reins like this.

Correcting ourselves and getting the horse off his forehand

At this point, Christy was most likely howling “Hold your reins! PIN YOUR ELBOWS TO YOUR SIDE!”     I scrambled to put things back together.  First, I half-halted,  bringing my elbows back to where they belonged as I rebalanced the tolerant creature beneath me.   I sat myself up straighter, and opened my hip angles, and started to lengthen my legs again by dropping my knees.  You can see how the changes I made in about 3 strides have improved Derby’s carriage.

Once I had fixed the big issues, I was able to ask Derby to move forward, while (this time!) holding the dang contact. I’m still struggling with staying straight (and keeping the hip angles open) as you can see, but overall, the balance was much better and I finally, finally, finally got him fully connected, producing the nice moment you see at the very top of this post.

It’s the most amazing feeling, and gives me hope for our future in the ring!

The seatbone is connected to everything

Empric evidence of my imbalance.

A few weeks ago, had you asked me to find my seatbones, I probably wouldn’t have been able to find them with both hands.  Due to some new exercises, however, I’m now very much in touch with the aforementioned bony structures.

As part of the work on my postition, Christy is taking square aim at an old problem of mine.   I tend to sit crookedly in the saddle, and weight the left side – especially my left seatbone and the left rein – a lot more heavily. We know this because I got an Equisense analysis last fall, which was revealing to say the least.

One thing has become evident to me throughout this tedious process of fixing my position – and building the requisite muscle memorty to hold it.  If you’re in balance with the horse, and are sitting correctly, the hose will move correclty.  But if you find yourself in a situation  where you’re desperately trying to muscle the horse into doing what you want it to do , chances are good the problem rests with you, not with the exquisitely sensitive and responsive creature on whose back you’re siting.  At least, this is the case with me.  As soon as I am inclined to use force, that’s a red flag that something is wrong with my position.

In order to encourage me to be more balanced in the saddle, Christy first had me get acquainted with my seatbones.  Atanding at the halt, with my feet out of the stirrups, she had me raise my knees.  Voila.  I could feel my seatbones, and clearly.

Next, she had me loosen my hips by gently scissoring my legs back and forth, from the hip, not the knee.  Doing this encouraged me to lengthen my legs,  and also caused my seatbones to move forward and backwards.  Next, I repeated the cissoring at the walk, holding my lower leg off the horse.  Turning to the right, I pushed my left leg back.  Then I straightened, and as we started a right turn, I pushed the left back.  This wasn’t a drastic move.  But I could definitely feel the pressure shifting from seatbone to seatbone.

On a loopy rein, Derby serpentined down the long side, guided by the subtle pressure just from my hip bones.   Cool!

We moved into a trot, and the first time I tried this , it was a struggle, as I got stuck in my left hip and wasn’t able to rebalance to the other side quickly.  Tonight, however, was better.  My body control was better, and serpentined smoothly.  Best of all, I started making these shifts instinctively, without thinking.

This is nit-picky stuff.  It’s basic.  But let’s face it – I have a lot of bad habits, and unless I conquer them, I’m doomed to mediocre scores at the lowest levels. I’m glad I have a trainer who espouses a deliberate – and very correct approach!

 

The core of the problem

Our first lesson in more than a month

As you’ve probably surmised due to the infrequent blog posts, the last few weeks haven’t been too exciting.  I’ve been working hard on rebuilding my riding muscles and regaining my seat, and at the same time, I’ve been gradually stepping up the work Derby is doing.   I’m now doing 30-40 minute rides, with about 10-15 minutes of trotting.   For the time being, building our fitness is my main priority.

Now that we’re doing some decent work and are able to sustain our efforts for a little while I decided that it was time to re-start lessons with Christy.  We are thinking of going out to a schooling show mid-August just to get Derby out and about.  We won’t be ready for anything, really, and will probably do a walk-trot test.  But I don’t want to embarrass myself, and I’ve been worried about the quality of our walk.

Derby would prefer to shuffle slowly, and I’ve been working on improving his tempo and energy.  He’s doing much better lately but we lose that energy and rhythm, I’ve noticed, when we circle or serpentine.

As we talked, I sat easily, with loopy reins, and Derby walked – a nice, swingy walk with good energy.  Christy had me gather the reins, and immediately Derby’s stride shortened.  From there, Christy had me keep my legs off Derby, instead, opening up my hip angle, sitting up straight and inviting a bigger stride.  It worked.  Derby went from a stodgy little walk to a nice swingy one.

A nice walk

Christy’s eagle eye had noticed something.  When I gathered the reins up, I leaned forward – very slightly – but it was enough to close my hip angle, causing Derby to shorten his stride.    We experimented with this a little bit, and when I mentioned the difficulties I had maintaining tempo when asking for bend on circle or serpentine, she watched carefully as I asked Derby to bend with my inside leg.

Sure enough, she spotted it.  Whatever I was doing with my inner leg was causing me to close my hip angle.   We figured it out – I was reverting to old habit of curling my heel up when applying my leg.

I've closed my hip and Derby has shortened his stride.

The difference in stills from the video Christy snapped is stark. Derby’s head has popped up and his back is hollow.

From there Christy had us move to trotting, reminding me to post hips to hands, keeping my hip angle open, and engaging my core muscles.    When I followed her instructions, Derby responded immediately, rounding and relaxing, chewing the bit.

But the second I stopped riding,  Derby hollowed and his head came up . “Core!” Christy called in my direction.  I re-engaged my core and opened my hips and the gait quality improved.   Christy reminded me that Derby is very much a “seat horse” – he’s sensitive to the slightest movement of the rider  This is both a blessing and a curse, she told me.  Once I get control of my body and my aids, I’ll be able to influence Derby very subtly.  It’s going to take some work to get there, though!

Related reading: http://www.balancedrider.com/blog/2011/07/11070601.htm