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.

Victory! New, Improved Seat & Leg

Victory!  Albeit a small one, but I don’t care, I’m taking it.   My week of hip-flexor torture is paying off.  In last night’s lesson, my leg and seat position was much better.  My leg was hanging correctly from the hip – toes in and making full contact with the horse – and best of all – it didn’t hurt.  I wasn’t overloading my ankles with weight while at the same time twisting them inward (that really hurts!)

Interestingly, Christy asked me if I had dropped my stirrups a hole.  Huh, I didn’t think so, and verified that no, the stirrups were on the same hole I usually ride.  My leg sure did feel different though, and I suspect it looked a bit different to her, too.

I also got to test the strength of my new position.  Mads spooked sideways and for a second I thought it was going to evolve into a bit more of a spook.  But I was solid in the saddle – rock solid in fact – and was able to ride through it nicely.  Though my heart was pounding afterward and my legs momentarily were jelly, Christy assured me that I rode it well and never looked like I was having a problem.

So, progress!

Relaxing after a ride

 

Muscles

We're both working for this nice trot

Today I’m taking a day off from riding, and I’m glad.   The muscles that I’m retraining in my legs are exhausted.  I felt this yesterday, when Christy and I met for an early afternoon ride.  We had the arena to ourselves, the air was cold and crisp, Mads was really forward (I left her quarter sheet off, to encourage a little extra spunk).  One problem.  As we were trotting around warming up, before I was even asking Mads for anything more than a little stretch here or flex there, my legs were tired.  Really tired.  At first I thought that I’d get warmed up, and I’d be okay.  But “okay” wasn’t forthcoming.

As we were warming up, before we even moved off into a trot, Christy – in her weird, mind-reader, prescient way – was talking about a book about equine physiology she’s considering adding to her library.   Among other things, she’s interested in learning the physiology of muscle development and how to build equine muscles correctly.  Any sort of muscle development requires that the muscle be overloaded.  Soreness – a result of minute tears in muscle fibers (“microtrauma”) – is part of the process, an indicator that you are in fact working – and stressing – the target muscles. If it’s not getting a bit sore, you’re not using (and developing) the muscle.  I’m no sports physiologist, but I’m pretty sure my body was telling me to give it a rest. It was a short and unfulfilling ride.

The discussion of muscles got me thinking about Friday’s ride, during which Mads read one of my aids (pushing with my inside hip flexor) as a canter cue, when I intended for her to just bend.   I’ve long been gently bending this light and responsive mare at the trot simply by pushing gently with a hip flexor, making kind of a scooping action with the seatbone on the same side. It’s a small aid (or, at least, it is when I use it as described. It can be much stronger) and when I do it on the long side of the arena, I can bend Mads gently one way, then another, and then back again, keeping contact with her mouth steady and unchanged.

So why was my subtle cue now eliciting a canter? Well, it probably has everything to do with my new, improved leg position.  If I’m riding in a correct position, more of my leg is against the horse.  In my old toes-out postition, my leg wasn’t in much contact with Maddie’s side – really, just my heel and upper thighs.  Now, however, when I ride with my hip angles open, my whole leg rolled (for me) inward, and toes pointing forward, my entire leg is in contact with the horse.  So that subtle cue I had been giving was amplified.

Just one more thing to think about as I rebuild my seat.  I have to re-define my aids, as well.

Hard, easy, habit, beautiful

George Morris’ voice is still ringing in my head from Sunday’s clinic. One thing he said that really resonated with me was this: “The first time you do anything, it’s difficult. Eventually it becomes easy. Then it becomes habit. Finally, it becomes beautiful.”

I’m clinging to those words now because I’m in the process of making some adjustments to my seat, and building the requisite muscle memory.  The changes are hard for me – I’m working on rolling my legs inward from the hip – stretching through my hip flexors – to allow my leg to lay more fully and correctly against the horse.  My habit – and conformation – make this difficult.  It’s easy for me to roll my whole leg outward, knees and heels together, toes pointing 180 degrees apart, like a ballerina in first position. Unfortunately, I do not aspire to be a ballerina.

So I’ve been working on opening my hip flexors, and rolling them inward, which (should) also press my knees into my saddle blocks, and bring my toes forward.
Ah.  My toes. Woe is my toes.  Left to my own devices, I’d let them flop out, like a car with its doors hanging open, the back of my heel bumping against the horse.  Too bad that looks seriously ugly, and doesn’t work well when wearing spurs.  You see my problem.

So right now, I’m doing a few things.  I’m spending more time in two point, and I’m dropping my stirrups at the walk, both of which help me align the hips-knees-ankles and sink into my heel.  I have to say, however, it feels like hell now, even when Christy pipes her approval from the middle of the ring.  My muscles are on fire.  My flexors, they’re a-flexin’.  And the whole thing feels discombobulated to me.

Hard, easy, habit, beautiful.  Right now, this is hard.   Boo.

I did have a nice little piece of encouragement last night, though. I got on a friend’s horse who was a little to fresh for her tastes. He’s green, and wanted to go around with his head up, braced against the bit.  I had flashbacks to riding Jag as I was just re-learning to ride, before either of us had any sort of dressage training.  I dug around in my video archives and yep, sure enough, found some video of a braced, inverted trot.  Nice.

So, back to last night.  I’m a better rider than I was lo those three years ago (thank you Jesus, and Christy) and immediately took a hold on that bracing mouth, and started to ask him to soften.  I pushed with my inside leg, into the outside rein, and even though this horse isn’t the best at bending, I got some decent bend and softening.  We worked a bit both directions, and then, at the walk, I focused on getting him to soften and relax.  He was a quick study, and started to figure it out by the end of our short ride.

I remember well the days when I wondered if I’d ever, ever, ever be able to bend a horse, or react quickly enough to give when the horse softened into the bit.  It seemed sooo hard when I first started working on those skills.  Last night, I realized that those have become habit.  They are not beautiful (yet) but they are habit.  Bending and softening and using the outside rein are built into how I ride.  That gives me hope – much needed right now when things feel so awful!

I stand — err, sit — corrected

The Equisense sensors don't lie.

This weekend I had the opportunity to have my riding position analyzed using an Equicizer from Equisense systems.   The Equicizer is endorsed byformer Olympian and general dressage goddess Jane Savoie, and is a sensor-loaded dummy horse that, when mounted, reveals how even (or not!) a rider’s position is.  Everything from leg pressure to seat position to the weight one takes in the reins is measured and fed back to the rider.

I will be the first to tell you that I have a variety of issues, so I eagerly clambered aboard for my session. And wow, it was revealing .

Right off the bat, the Equisense trainer had me make a significant change to my seat – opening my hip flexors and changing my hip angle.   I’ve been having some issues with my knees coming forward, and I had the same problems on the Equicizer.  But after adjusting how I was sitting on the horse by opening my hip angle, the problem went away.

At the outset, my seat was also slightly uneven.  I was putting more weight on the right seatbone.  The trainer instructed me to push my left hipbone toward the horse’s right ear.  This adjustment balanced my seat perfectly.  It didn’t feel perfect to me, however – it felt very much like I was pushing that left hip forward.  The trainer advised me that my ability to feel this was good – to make this correction permanent, I’ll need to be aware when mounted, and start building the muscle memory needed to make this adjustment permanent.   Happily, throughout my session on the Equicizer, I was able to maintain that balance, even through changes in the speed of the simulated gaits.

An apology to Maddie

Without a doubt, the most revealing part of the experience was what I learned about how I hold the reins.   Right from the outset, I was holding a lot more weight in the left rein, even though they felt dead even to me.  This is illustrated in the image at the top of the post – if you look at the top of the image, under “Reins” you can see that the red graph showing right rein pressure is far different from the corresponding blue graph for the left rein.

The trainer worked with me on increasing and decreasing the degree of contact I carry in the reins from my shoulders, moving my shoulder blades back and forth.  She then isolated my right arm and shoulder, asking me to bring that shoulder blade back.  As I did so the sensors indicated that the pressure I was putting in each rein was almost even.  She put the Equicizer into motion, and things went haywire again.  Slowly I was able to even out the rein pressure.  But it didn’t feel even to me – at all.  Throughout the session, I was feeling more weight – a lot more – in that right rein.  The muscle memory training mentioned previously will come into play here, as well.   In the meantime, I owe a certain big bay mare an apology.

After some effort, finally, more even rein pressure

Unbeknownst to me I’ve been really hanging on that left rein, even when things felt even or a bit light. In reality, I suspect there’s been a lot more pressure on that rein, and the mare has been responding as any horse would – by returning the favor, and hanging back.  When I’ve managed to do the exercises Christy suggests (dropping pressure on the left rein intermittently while driving the mare into the right rein with my inside leg) we get the nicest, most honest bend.  So the big take away here is to focus on evening up the balance in my reins, which *should* reduce the problems I’m having with left bend.  Tonight, when I get back on the mare, I’ll have a specific plan.  I’ll start by dropping my stirrups, paying attention to my hip angle and letting gravity stretch my legs.  I’ll pick up my stirrups, and will maintain that open angle, avoiding my old posture with tilting pelvis and arched back.  And when we’re working with what I perceive to be even contact, I’ll be conscious of reducing my left rein pressure, and observing that that change elicits in the big mare.

Here’s some commentary from Jane Savoie – who endorses the Equicizer – and a look at how it works: