Hands up and out

derby trot

Working it out on the longe.

We’ve continued to have some seriously variable weather lately – last week we started with pouring rain and temperatures in the 50’s,  only to have  a 40 degree drop over one 24 hour period, plunging us back into the deep freeze.   We’ve had some silly equine behavior to contend with, but for the most part, Derby has been fine, despite the fact that he and Remy aren’t moving around much at all in their turn out.  They’re smart boys – there are some slick spots out there.

Our rides have been similarly up and down. We’ve had some really great ones, and then some others that were marked by tension.  Saturday I didn’t ride at all, because he had a case of bats in his belfry.  Between lack of exercise and sharply cooler weather, my usually cool cucumber was totally wired, spooking on the longe line the ice falling off the roof and the barn doors opening.  Though I was disappointed that I didn’t get to ride, I did take the opportunity to do groundwork.  Here’s a video clip of some of the longing.  I was pleased that despite his enthusiasm, Derby was also listening, allowing me to half-halt him with my voice, and doing nice upward and downward transitions.  However, midway through the video, you see one of the spooks, and he takes off in a spectacularly awful canter, with different leads fore and aft.

Sunday was a weird day, marked by a sad turn of events when an elderly retiree died suddently in his pasture.  Though it appeared that he went quickly (not 45 minutes after I had walked by him and said hello on my way to fetch Derby), it was still upsetting, and then there was the unsavory task of moving the deceased from his paddock to the front drive for the livestock removal folks.  I didn’t want to be mounted while all that was going on next to the arena, so Derby enjoyed a flake of hay after I tacked him up.  We ended up having a pretty decent ride, but nothing earth-shattering.   I still rode tentatively and Derby was offering bucks when I touched him with the whip or my pencil-eraser sized spur.

Before my lesson last night, I had Christy check his back, because I was getting to the point where I didn’t trust myself anymore.  He’s seemed a bit back sore at lately, and I tried a variety of pad and saddle combinations on him to little avail.   I’ve been waffling back and forth, wondering if some of the issues around resistance and cooperation were a symptom of some saddle fit issues, or a symptom that would be best remedied by some wet saddle pads and a good thwack on the rump every now and then.   Christy removed my doubts. She poked and prodded, and as she increased the pressure, he yawned and stretched his neck.  He thought he was getting a massage.

Wonderful.  I got on, feeling much better now that some uncertainty had been removed.  And Derby sensed it right away, setting of in a marching walk, and offering no foolishness. While we warmed up, we worked on my position and my bad habit of letting my reins get long and then pulling them toward my hips.  The issue du jour for me is carrying my hands properly.

As we warmed up, we worked on getting Derby to come through at the walk, which improves when I sit up, engage my core, use my inside leg and stay out of his mouth.  When I get it right we go from this:

starting walk

To this – a much nicer, more engaged walk.

nice walk

We then moved to trot, still focusing on throughness and activating Derby’s hind legs, while requiring me to keep my hands where they belong.  As I’ve witnessed before, the horse is absolutely willing to meet you halfway when you get your position right.  Derby was moving happily and was nicely over his back.  It’s in moments like these that I really understand what we’re talking about when we refer to harmony in dressage.  Suddenly, things become easy when you’re in balance and harmony with the horse.

Hands forward, over the withers, where they belong.

Hands forward, over the withers, where they belong.

It was a really nice ride, and I hope to build on it tonight.  However, we have whiteout conditions today, with high winds and snow.  Awesome.  I can’t wait for spring!

Roller Coasters

cute jumpYesterday the Chicago area flirted with record high temperatures, reaching 66 degrees.   Wind and lots of rain also visited the area.  But what a difference a day makes.  Right now, temperatures are headed down to 10 degrees, and snow is covering the ground.

The horses have been in for a few days, and between the chaotic weather and being trapped inside, they’re starting to get a little loony. I was traveling Monday and Tuesday, and Derby wasn’t well behaved either day for the girl I had lined up to ride him.  She’s a lovely rider (much better than me,) and normally they have great rides together. However, Monday he would not go forward – refusing to do anything but a shuffling jog, and Tuesday he had a puffy leg and a nick just above an eye, so he just got a hand walk.

This morning I got up early to visit Derby before starting work.  I suspect his puffy ankle is from an aggravated bed sore on the front of the fetlock. He’s sound and there’s no heat.   The eye looks fine too, it’s superficial.  I was relieved.

In anticipation of riding tonight, I put Derby’s boots on for a little early morning exercise.  Once we were in the arena, I set up a little X for him.  He started taking himself over it even before I asked, and had a lot of fun jumping it both ways.  Not wanting to make himself sore, I took the X down before Derby was really ready to be done with it, turning it into trot poles which Derby then trotted and cantered.  Afterwards, he got a long walk, a good currying and some cookies in his haynet to help him pass the time.

When I went to tack him up tonight, however, I noticed that his wither area was a bit sore.  Not super bad, but not great, and given that he’d had some issues over the last few days, I left him in his stall, and went to fetch my good buddy Manny.

During our lesson, Christy noted that my hands were staying nice and quiet, and I told her that I believe I finally have the “feel” for carrying my hands independently.  Riding Tucker a couple weeks ago, I had a bit of an epiphany, and for the first time could really feel what I was doing in terms of following the movement with my seat but keeping my upper body and hands quiet.  Since that ride I’ve been able to replicate it, so I hope this means that it’s officially a new habit.

What produced this epiphany?  It’s hard to nail down.  I have been doing the work, riding different horses and working on my seat, including dropping my stirrups.  And I have been diligent about doing my homework, practicing what we work on in my lessons, and looking to the horse for feedback on how I’m doing.   Ultimately, I think that I’ve become a good student, able to synthesize and apply what I learn from Christy.

So yay.  Progress! Just in time for some wicked cold that is threatening to keep us grounded tomorrow.  We’ll see.

Unfinished business

My plans with Derby have come to a halt for the time being, as he’s busy brewing an abscess in his right front.   The hoof is warm, and getting warmer, and it’s clearly tender.  So as that situation resolves, I’ve been riding Manny and Tucker, and they’ve been giving me invaluable feedback on a bad habit of mine – allowing my hands to creep downward and back, instead of keeping them up over the horse’s withers.   It turns out that Manny and Tucker, with their shorter, higher-set necks, are the perfect schoolmasters for this particular problem.  They also helped me do a better job of using my inside leg to ride the horse out into the contact, another sticking point for me.

I started tackling the problem while riding Manny in a lesson.  Christy caught me pulling his head in, instead of riding him out to the contact, so she had me focus on sitting up and carrying my hands correctly, keeping them quiet, while at the same time using my inside leg to encourage Manny to bend and soften.  As I did so, Manny responded positively.  His back came up and he really engaged for me. The lesson for me was “less is more, but ‘less’ has to be correct.”

I also had a very redemptive ride on Tucker recently.   He’s well trained but he is really hard for me to ride.  However, using some of the tactics from my lesson on Manny, I was finally able to have a decent ride on Tucker.   What both rides really showed me is that I am very hands-y, and am over reliant (and flat out incorrect).  I have rides on both slated for later this week – I’d like to get this bad habit fixed for once and for all before I get back on the Derbster.

Carry on, and carry yourself

How you doin'?

We had an interesting weekend, and have resumed our lessons for the week.

We had a nice ride on Saturday, however, we had a mini mishap when I went to ask for the left lead canter.  As I asked and Derby stepped into stride, I felt my inside leg slip back, and I poked him in the belly with a spur.  Derby rightly took some offense, humping his back and and daring me to needlessly jab him again.  I transitioned to trot and got my butt up in two point.  I have to strengthen my leg, period.

Sunday was a gorgeous day, and all of the arena doors are open.  I’m not sure Derby’s ever seen the back door open, and he was bug-eyed at an open side door last week, outside which a variety of equipment is parked. I rode him through resistance and spooks, getting closer and closer to the lawn mower that was crouched, waiting to give a passing horse a haircut, but it wasn’t a great ride, and at no point did Derby really relax.

After that ride, I revisited getting control over the inside hind.  I practiced lateral work (shoulder-in and leg yield) and lots of work bending and flexing.  I got to put that work to the test on Sunday, and things went well. In short order I was able to get Derby to relax, and go around on the rail, walking and trotting easily.  Relaxation was the goal of the day.

Tonight we resumed lessons, and we’re stepping up to 45 minutes.  The first part of the lesson went pretty well, but then things got a little interesting when Derby started to resist, sucking his tongue over the bit and sucking back.  The answer wasn’t to mess with the reins, I learned.  Instead Christy had me get after Derby with my inside leg when he came above the bit and resisted.  “Tap tap tap! Use your leg! Use it!”  It worked, sending Derby forward into the contact, rather than trying to wrestle him with the reins.

Taking a break, Christy explained, theorizing that as I started to lose energy, I was losing a bit of balance and steadiness.  Derby was taking advantage.  Taking her words to heart, I changed direction, and made a real effort to balance myself. I found my seatbones, and got a nice walk. Moving into the trot, I posted out of a soft half-seat, keeping a quiet and balanced position.  Derby quieted, his back came up and the quality of the trot got better quickly.   “That’s better, that’s much better!” Christy affirmed.  I explained to her the adjustment I had made.

“Well, before you can expect the horse to carry himself, you have to carry yourself, ” she said. This was a lesson I’ll definitely remember.