The new saddle arrives!

The new saddle - an Albion K2 Genesis

I believe the saddle fit woes that kept us grounded are finally over – the new Albion K2 Genesis that arrived last week is working well for both Derby and me – so far.

From my perspective, the saddle is extraordinarily comfortable and well balanced – it accommodates my long femur and my decided preference for a closer contact feel and a narrow twist. Derby seems to like it too – he’s relaxed and isn’t showing any resistance.  His back soreness is almost gone.

The saddle’s arrival coincided with a week of brutally high temperatures, with heat indices of well over 100 for the week.  While it wasn’t pleasant, it didn’t impact my riding.  I was planning on doing light rides with Derby at the outset, just 20 minutes or so, mostly walking – and that’s what we did.   We stepped it up to 30 minutes with more trotting yesterday.  We’re not working on much at all at the moment – getting the horse back into condition to support real work is job one.  I’m starting to ask for some stretching and transitions, and am doing so incrementally.

In other news, some bad habits are back in force – namely, the toes-out, knees-out position I fought to overcome on Maddie last winter.  Because I’m still not working too hard with Derby, I’m picking up rides on other horses so I can sustain my own efforts longer.  Lots of two-point work is ahead of me.  And I have to work on stretching my hip flexors – so I can roll my whole leg inward.  Ugh.  Back to square one!

Two rides, two results.

I had two rides on Oliver recently – one on Saturday, and one tonight.  On Saturday he was unfocused and a bit tense, but I did very cruelly ride him right as the other horses were being brought in and fed, and Oliver registered his discontent by doing his best to ignore me, calling to other horses, and keeping his ears forward, pointedly not listening to me.  He was a little squirrely at the beginning of the ride, but I put him straight to work, and we ended up having a decent ride, but  he never truly relaxed for me.  Despite his total unhappiness with my delaying his dinner, we did book one important accomplishment –  I got him to spiral in and out, at the walk, in both directions.  He’s beginning to understand leg aids, and best of all, I was able to get him to move alway from my right leg when circling right.  So that was a definite win.

Tonight I showed up after dinner, and Oliver was back to his mellow self.  We had a very nice ride, and worked on a number of things.  First, as we warmed up, I worked on steering correctly – from inside leg and outside rein.  He’s not perfect, but he improves with each ride.  I rode shallow serpentines and figure-8’s and at the end of the warm up, he was turning nicely for me.  I went back to this exercise mid-ride during a walk break, and also got  good responses.  This is good progress.

We also did quite a bit of work trotting.  I had my spurs on tonight, and warmed up carefully, working on keeping my leg in position with my toes forward, and my foot at the girth, not curled back.  I did the balancing exercises that Christy has me working on, and was pleased to find that Oliver held a pretty steady rhythm for a change, and he is also accepting more contact from me, and stays relaxed.  This is also some nice progress.  He used to bear down and speed up whenever his rider touched his mouth.

However, I noticed that as we worked, he started to speed up randomly, often at a moment when I was giving him little or no real input.  Ha!  Busted! I think he uses speeding up as an evasion, so whenever he did that, I sent him forward and kept him there.  We just got a couple loads of sand in the arena, and the footing is deeper – and takes more work.  He started to tire and wanted to slow down, but I kept him moving forward to make the point that the human – not the horse – sets the tempo.  We did more serpentines and figure-8s while trotting, and lo and behold, the evasions stopped once he was convinced that I was paying attention.

We finished up the ride working on transitions.  His downward transition in particular isn’t as crisp as I’d like to see – he really needs to transition from the seat.  I started by saying “whoa” while giving him a big half halt with my seat, and closing my fingers on the reins, which increased the contact.  Gradually, as he got the hang of it, I dropped the “whoa,” and for the last few, I was *almost* able to abandon the reins. Almost but not quite.  However, he made good progress, and I could feel him stepping nicely under himself when I half-halted him, which is exactly the correct response to this important aid.  Good boy, Oliver!

We finished up working on relaxing and stretching. He is hard (for me at least) to stretch, and he’s still not working over his back enough to speak of – getting him to stretch into the bit is the next thing on my mental to-do list for Oliver, behind relaxing, building the strength to move rhythmically and steering correctly. At this point, I’m happy if I can get him to stretch into a decent working walk – on my terms and at my invitation. He likes stretching, but does it on his own, almost rooting (and makes  me wonder at times if he’s using this unbidden behavior to evade.)  He relaxed, and stretched a bit, and then halted promptly from my seat.  He earned his cookies tonight!

Love it, hate it

A key component of rebuilding my seat (and my confidence) involves balance. Christy is focusing on this in our lessons, and I’m spending a lot of time out of the saddle – standing, hovering in a half seat, and working in two-point.   And I have a lot more to go. Christy reminded me of an article in last month’s Dressage Connections about the repetitions required to establish new habits and muscle memory. The number is in the tens of thousands.

Argh. My leg is curling back, and my upper body is tipped forward. I must fix this.

I had a fun ride last night on an adorable little Quarter Horse named Tucker. He’s an exceptionally fancy QH, with nice gaits and lots of training. Tucker is mirror, reflecting his rider’s aids, and because he’s got so much training, he notices every message his rider sends – intentionally or otherwise. I can feel how off my timing is when I’m late on softening, or when I respond to slowly to one of his lightning quick little evasions – popping a shoulder out here, a hip inward there.

Tucker is a fancy little fellow.

I was sorely, sorely tempted to push all the buttons and ride this fun little horse to the best of my ability.  But the ride wasn’t pretty, and Christy pointed out that my aids probably weren’t as clear or well timed as they could be.  Oh, and by the way, my leg was curling back again.  So instead of pushing the fun buttons, I went back to cultivating a balanced seat.

Christy has me doing three exercises that are brutal, and brutally effective.  All tax the squishy muscles I need to develop, none are terribly fun, and all take direct aim at improving my lower leg position and stability.

Post – Stand – Post

The first exercise Christy has me use (and return to immediately if things go south) is posting two beats, and then standing two beats, post two, stand two, rinse and repeat.   It’s not terribly fun for me because when I stand for two beats, balance is a real challenge.  However, building the feel for balance is one of the key outputs of this exercise.  And the fact that as I stand, my leg invariably is in (and remains in) the correct positi0n is also helpful.   This is an exercise I’m going to be doing a lot, on every horse I ride.

Hover Post

The next exercise Christy has me do has much the same effect as the first, in that it tests my balance while building a steadier lower leg.  She has me ride a posting trot, but doesn’t allow my butt to touch the saddle.  I drop into a half-seat instead of sitting all the way down.  For extra fun, Christy will have me mix the two exercises.  I’m grunting and swearing by the time I complete one lap.

The lower-leg-curling habit is most evident when I want to use my leg.  I need to get it through my head that using my leg does not mean trying to reach back and poke the horse in the flank – it means applying pressure (or the spur) with my leg at or near “home” position – at the girth.  Using my leg correctly and building muscle memory is something else I need to practice, practice and practice some more.

Stand & Steer

To work on getting the feel of using my leg while keeping it in the correct position, Christy has me stand, and steer the horse from my leg.  I can’t curl my legs back when standing – this is a genius little exercise that I can’t evade.  As I stand, I experiment with using my inside and outside aids.  There’s absolutely no question in my mind that my leg aids are much more clear and distinct when I do this, because I get crisp responses from all the horses I ride – even Oliver, who has no dressage training to speak of.  As a bonus, this exercise requires balance, as well.

Riding Tucker was fun, and will only be more so when I recapture my ability to ride with a modicum of balance and precision.  In the meantime, I’m practicing, and recalling what George Morris said about building new habits: first it’s hard, then it gets easy, then it becomes habit, and, finally, it’s beautiful.  For what it’s worth, I’m firmly in the “hard” stage!

Close your fingers, for the love of God!

Break it down

A few posts ago, as I bade Mads farewell, I mused out loud about how doors open when others close.  At that moment, my time with Maddie was ending, and I wasn’t seeing very many other doors to walk through. Happily, a new and unexpected door has swung open.  With no horse, and no real agenda at the moment, we’re using this time to make me a more well rounded rider, adding new skills to my toolbox and instilling confidence as I build competence.

Through the kindness of friends (and their busy schedules at work) I’ve been given the golden opportunity to ride a variety of horses.  I’ve handed myself over to Christy, and we’re rebuilding my seat, borrowing some theory and practice from the hunter barns in Christy’s past, where riders rode all manner of horses – fresh off the track OTTBs, sour and crafty schoolies, hotrods and dead heads.  This is common practice – and it’s good practice.  You ride what you have, and you ride over poles, grids and courses.    The riders are all adept at riding in a balanced half seats, and rely on their balance – not the tack – to stay aboard when things get hairy.

Christy and I talked about this in the aisle a few days ago.   She had me stand with my legs apart and knees bent, with my back flat, hips behind me and shoulders forward – in “two point”.   Then, from there, she had me move my upper body around, to see how far I really had to move before I started to throw myself off balance.  It turns out I have quite a large range of motion when crouching in two-point in the aisle.

Then, she had me straighten up, adopting the posture of a dressage rider – knees slightly bent, standing erect.  She challenged me again to move my top half around, to the point were I started to become unbalanced.  My range of comfortable motion was much less.  When you’re upright, your body acts as a lever.  The only way you can hope to save yourself and rebalance is maximally engage your core muscles, and they better be super strong if this is going to save you from going ker-splat.

This was an illuminating little exercise.  We moved it to the saddle over the weekend, as I described yesterday.  Tonight, I took a lesson on Oliver, and we went another couple steps. I rode with my stirrups shorter, which really does feel like hell, and in an illuminating exercise, Christy had me work on bending and steering him with my legs, while standing.

It worked surprisingly well!  First and foremost, standing forces you to keep you leg under you.  I need to build muscle memory and break my bad habit of tucking my leg back and curling my heel up when I want to put leg on the horse.  I have to keep that leg at. the. girth. while I apply leg.  And Oliver really responded to what had to be a much clearer and more distinct aid.  He surprised me by neatly stepping under himself and giving nicely as I asked him to bend.    We were starting out going to the right, the direction in which I find Oliver to be resistant to correct bending – he wants to lean inward and I usually have to work hard to move him out when going that direction.  But during this exercise, I got the nicest bend and response from Oliver I’ve had to date.  I was thrilled!

We picked up the trot, and here’s where things always get interesting with Oliver.  He’s a newbie to dressage and hasn’t established a nice rhythm yet.  He goes fast, he goes slow, he strides out, he almost drops to a walk, he hops forward again.  His speed setting is locked on “wildly variable.”  I posted, but kept out of the saddle, going no further than a half-seat on the downward beat.  The variable speeds of Oliver’s trot were are a real challenge to stay with, but it’s great practice for me.  I hopped up into two point, trying to keep my weight out of the stirrups.  Oliver sped up. Oliver slowed down.  I adjusted and didn’t fall off.

When I had about had it, I sat on a down beat, sat up straight, and asked Oliver to walk, principally from my seat.  He’s getting better at listening to this, and the response came quickly.

Christy pointed out that because I had my legs correctly under me when I posted, when I sat, I was able to sit deep and be effective.  She made the link for me between that balanced seat I had at that moment, and the balanced seat that saw me safely through spooks and equine naughtiness.  The foundation of this important tool is correct leg position.  This was a great illustration of this principle.

We worked in the trot in both directions.  In addition to staying with the uneven rhythm, I also worked on gently bending Oliver and steering correctly from my outside rein.  I swear, if there’s one thing I hope I can help contribute to Oliver’s education, it’s better steering!  But he actually did really well tonight, and he’s a quick study. I got a couple little leg-yield steps here and there – he was stepping out from my leg correctly and giving me some nice bending.  We then did some figure 8’s and by the end, I was able to ask nicely and receive a reasonable response from the horse.   I was very proud of Oliver – he’s a smart one and learns quickly.

This was an illuminating lesson, because I was able to practice what Christy and I discussed in the aisle this weekend, as we crouched in a semblance of two-point and discussed balance, velocity and physics.  Set’s face it.  The tackiest leather, the stickiest full seats, the biggest blocks – all are of little use when hell really breaks loose.  Your ability to stay balanced is what will save your bacon.

Case in point: Seconds before I rode that crazy thunder-induced bolting spook a few weeks ago, I quite literally said to myself “green horse, weight your heels,” and had just stretched down into my stirrups when he spooked.  It must have been Divine intervention, because know the fact that I started from a balanced seat contributed mightily to my success in riding that spook long enough to dictate my dismount.

So the next month or two will be interesting.  It’s going to be a real challenge for me but I’m excited about becoming more well-rounded and an overall better rider.   There is one problem, though.  And it’s Christy. I don’t like the way she looks at me when she’s thinking – it’s how a lion sizes up a baby gazelle – and I can see her wheels turning.  Like tonight, when I was watching Atlanta’s owner Cathy finishing a fun ride by cooling out bareback.   Atlanta, a nice round Hano, doesn’t have razor withers or a protruding spine.  One could imagine riding her bareback with a degree of comfort.  I said as much out loud, within Christy’s ear shot.  Her eyes narrowed as she thought.  She looked at me.  She looked at Cathy and Atlanta.  She looked back at me.

I am so dead.

Unblocked

I have a few rides under my belt since my meltdown / anxiety attack last Saturday.  I’m happy to report that after today’s rides on Atlanta and Frank, I feel like I’ve got most of my mojo back, and haven’t lost my damn mind – which I originally feared was the case.

Last Sunday, I got on Atlanta, and had a decent ride (that mare is a champ) but still wasn’t happy about it.  I didn’t want to go out to the barn that day, and I didn’t want to ride.  (In case you’re wondering, these reactions are profoundly atypical for me.)   I then went out of town for the week, and came back with a better attitude.  I wanted to get back in the saddle.

Steph loaned me Oliver yesterday, and I meant to ride both him and Atlanta.  However, two horses with some interesting lameness issues were seeing a new farrier yesterday, and I ended up spending a couple hours studying advanced hoofcare instead of riding both horses.  I ended up just riding Oliver, who, at the outset, was decidedly unenthusiastic.  He was enjoying a nap in the sun when I went out to his paddock to fetch him.

Oliver snoozing in the sun.

And when I clipped the lead shank to his halter, I was treated to the most aggrieved display of equine pathos I’ve ever seen.

Drama king.

He eventually gave up, clambered to his feet, and with no further drama we went inside and I tacked up.

However, Christy has been busy thinking about some of her students’ confidence issues (yes, I’m among that group), and how we’re riding.  I’m leaving a lot of detail out, but in my case, after looking at lots of old pictures and video, she believes that some of my issues might be from my current saddle (a Wintec Isabell on which I have large blocks) and the posture that I using when I was riding Maddie regularly last fall (longer stirrup, sitting upright and vertical) and the challenges that posture presents me when I lose fitness (such as I did early this year between being sick and traveling) or ride a horse that isn’t working at the same level Mads and I were at last fall.

She explained that the vertical posture you see at the upper levels takes a lot of strength for both horse and rider to maintain.  And lately, I’ve not been maintaining it, and have been leaning forward a few degrees – which Christy says is appropriate.  But this has been causing another problem -well, several actually.

Tipping forward, with no base of support.

In this picture, I’m trying to sit up straight.  However, a few things are conspiring against me, and really, they all start with the fact that I’ve got big thigh blocks on that saddle.  I’m curling my leg up, and my knee is hitting the block, creating a fulcrum around which you can see my whole self pivots.  And in my effort to sit up straight, I’m arching my back.  This is not a solid base of support.

Now, in this picture from last fall, when I was stronger and fitter, my leg is where it belongs – I stayed secure during this spook and it was no big deal.

Why having your leg under is so important.

However, when I ate dirt recently, it’s probably because I didn’t have a good base of support, and, as a result, I didn’t stick the spook.

Here’s a picture of me riding Jag from a couple years ago. You can see that I’m leaning slightly forward, but as Christy noted, I’m well balanced, and this is appropriate for the level I’m at. In this photo, I’m riding in an old Keiffer Lech saddle, which was slick leather and had miniscule blocks.  My lower leg is nicely hanging at the girth.

The long leg and knee blocks work when I’m working at a higher level.  At the moment, given the variety of horses I’m riding, we’re going to concentrate on redeveloping my seat.  I know I’ll emerge a better rider, so for now, what Christy says, goes.

So, on Oliver yesterday and Atlanta and Frank today, I rode sans blocks. I’m also ditching my jointed stirrups – turns out they worsen my stability rather than enhancing it. I’m focusing on supporting myself with my legs, and keeping my lower leg under me.

Christy has a new form of torture – posting, but not returning to a half-seat, not sitting.   Apparently my leg is dead quiet when I do this.  I personally think that is because all the blood in my body was racing to help relieve my screaming glutes during this exercise, leaving my lower extremities lifeless and unable to move.  Either way, the boss in the middle of the ring seems to be happy with it so we’ll continue.

This weekend’s rides were focused on putting these pieces back together.  No fancy riding was to be seen, but I was smiling when I dismounted each time, and at the moment, that’s the best outcome!

Issue du Jour: Rein Imbalance

The "after" picture - better leg position, with my whole leg rolled inward, and toes foreward.

Finally.  I finally had a decent ride, and lasted for almost the full lesson.  It’s about time. Best of all, looking at some video of the ride, I can see that the work on my postion has really paid off.  My leg looks a lot better, and if feels a lot better.   My leg is hanging more correctly from the hip, and draping around the horse.   It’s not 100% perfect – I still curl heel up and my toes out when I apply leg.  So, while I know I need to continue to work on lengthening and stretching my legs, I also know that I’m headed in the right direction.

The "before" picture: toes out, hips open, and little leg contact with the horse.

Great.  Now, on to the issue du jour – the imbalance in my rein pressure. I think that Christy cracked this nut tonight when she commented that mine isn’t just a left rein issue – I’m imbalanced in the right rein too.  I hold the left rein and give the right – I let my right hand creep forward.  This probably explains why Mads and I circle beautifully to the right – as I’m inclined naturally to hold the left rein and soften the right.  Now, I need to achieve the same feel and balance in the other direction.  We worked on softening the inside rein, while holding the outside. Christy chipped away at it, and by the end of the ride things were clicking.

Dressage isn’t about leaps forward. It’s an exercise in increments.

 

It gets worse, it gets better (?)

I don’t know about you, but when I tackle a home organization or cleaning project, things generally get worse before they get better.  When I go to re-organize my office, or switch from summer clothes to winter duds in my closet, I invariably end up first destroying the space I’m tackling, and then putting it back together.

I think I’m doing the same to my riding !

Things were better tonight, but still not back to normal. Physically, I was much more comfortable – I wasn’t as stiff and sore (I skipped working out today) but I did stay on for 45 minutes, and got some work done.  The muscle endurance is still not there. I’m going to give the legs  another day of rest tomorrow, and just do some easy cardio and a core workout.  I’m more than a bit bothered by the fact that I can’t trot round for a few minutes without my legs burning.   This too shall pass, I’m sure.

Mads was hanging on the left rein something fierce, likely because I was doing the same. Christy had me work on turning left with a loopy left rein, meaning I had to be really active with my inside leg, and control the turn with my outside rein.  Obviously, I have not corrected the imbalance identified when I did the Eqisense analysis, and learned that I was placing a ton of pressure in that left rein, even though they felt even to me.   Here’s the analysis feedback screen showing vastly uneven pressure in the reins, though I would have sworn to you on a stack of Bibles, hand to God, that I was holding them evenly.

It took a while before the light bulb flicked on in both my head, and Maddie’s.  We waddled drunkenly around, narrowly missing walls.   Things improved when I used my outside leg as a correction, to prevent the mare from turning right.  And I used the inside rein slightly, to keep her looking left.

Christy had me release contact in the left rein after I softened Mads to the left, and got the desired response: a good left bend, with nice contact into the outside rein.  I presume dropping the rein had two purposes, or maybe even three. First, it was an immediate and clear reward to Maddie when she did the right thing.   Secondly, it removed the mare’s ability to hang on that rein.  And finally, it started to reinforce the habit and feel of lighter contact for me in that left rein.

We ended the ride by shuffling around at a halting trot with no stirrups.  I’m riding hesitantly without my stirrups, because I’m afraid of getting going, and having them bang into Maddie’s sides, and evoking a spirited response.  I’m going to either relinquish them entirely next week (though, for the record, Christy has promised to give them back to me) or at least loop them over the pommel – if the edges of my cheese-grater pads won’t hurt horse or rider.

Family is visiting this weekend.  I’m taking a two-day hiatus, and hope to be back in the saddle on Sunday.