An Ode, and Some Inspiration

Christy and Liam

I spent a blissful day up at Silverwood yesterday, watching Christy and Liam, as well as a few other friends and lots of area pros.  It was a big “two shows in one” weekend, running three days, and some big names were in attendance.  Ken Borden was there with Rashka, who’s been a USDF HOTY for the last three years running, at Training, First and Second, and it’s easy to see why this horse has more than 20 scores in excess of 80%.  Yvonne Barteau and and her Grand Prix powerhouse GP Raymeister (who, incidentally, is Rashka’s sire) are always fun to watch, and they didn’t disappoint in the musical freestyle I caught.

As much fun as it is to watch grand prix riders on fancy warmbloods, more than anything I still enjoy watching OTTBs go down the centerline.  For me, Christy and Liam stole the show, garnering two more scores toward the bronze medal (yay!!!!) and really illustrating what teamwork is all about. It was a hot day, and the footing at Silverwood is deeper than at home. Christy rode her first test conservatively, to ensure she had gas in the tank for her debut at Second Level.  They put in a good ride and got the score they needed before going back for round two.

During that second warm up, Christy commented that she could feel that Liam was getting tired.  It really didn’t show during the test, however – as usual, the two were in beautiful synch and harmony.  After the ride, however, it became clear that Liam had given Christy his all.  When I took him out to graze and cool off, he was reluctant to leave his stall, trudging slowly (that’s so unlike him) with his head drooping.  Poor boy!   He had been right there in the zone with Christy, and had left it all on the field.  He perked up when we showered him with treats after he had a bath, though.  He knew he had done well! I was overjoyed when we learned that Christy had indeed earned a score in excess of 60% at Second.  She’s halfway to her bronze!  It’s pretty exciting.

I also watched two other OTTBs.  Linus, a 10 year old that evented Prelim last year, went out at PSG and I-1.  He is a magnificent athlete and is a tempi-change machine.  His owner, Carol, says he’s the most athletic horse she’s ever had, and that dressage comes naturally for him.  Watching Linus, who carries a spectacular amount of muscle on his light Thoroughbred frame, is truly exciting and inspirational for anyone who loves Thoroughbreds.  What he lacks in extravagant gaits he makes up in athleticism and enthusiasm.  It’s going to be a fun summer watching him.

Kelly and Bubba execute a very pretty stretchy trot.

Our friend Kelly also had her green bean, a 5 year old OTTB she’s nicknamed Bubba, out for his first dressage show at Training.  He’s done a couple baby combined tests, and is showing a lot of promise.  However, he had some greenie moments during his test, taking exception to the judges booth and spooking whenever he came near C. Kelly rode with tact and empathy, staying quiet but insisting upon forward.  As much as I loved watching Liam and Linus, Bubba’s test was inspiring for me.  Kelly did a wonderful job of keeping the horse on the aids, and had some very nice moments, including the pretty stretchy trot pictured to the left.

The Thoroughbreds all acquitted themselves very well, and garnered compliments from onlookers, who admired how light and refined they appeared in the ring – the differences really are evident because most of the horses doing rated dressage shows are heavier warmbloods and draft crosses.

This morning I uploaded all the video I took yesterday, and watched all the rides once again.  Then I put on my britches and headed out to the barn, where I rousted Derby from a late-morning nap in the sun.  With visions of Bubba’s stretchy trot in my head and Christy’s words from last week’s lessons ringing in my ears (“He needs to be rounder.  Rounder still.  Half halt.  Again.  Again. Soften the inside rein.  Inside leg on. Half halt. Again!!! MAKE IT HAPPEN!”) I paid attention to differentiating between bracing contact and good, roundness. I half halted, and half halted, and half halted, but I was able to get Derby’s back up, and best of all, I was able to hold it.  Getting and maintaining roundness will be the absolute key for us in the coming weeks.  Everything is so much easier when you’re operating from that essential “ready” position, with a forward, round, connected horse.


Putting a few pieces together

Derby looks smashing in bright red, but I think we may be over-doing it a bit with this ensemble.

Riding bits and pieces of tests – a little stretchy trot here,  free walk there, etc. – is far different that putting a whole test together.I’m just barely starting to string together movements with deliberation.  Tonight we had a couple important firsts.

The big news was that I actually rode a canter transition.   I had Derby in a really nicely balanced canter – he was on the bit and it felt great.  As we rounded one end of the arena, I closed my fingers, half halted, engaged my core and kept it together as Derby transitioned to a trot.  I kept the trot going, and it wasn’t a bad trot – he was still on the bit, in fact, the contact was really good.  Still trotting, I decided to test my contact.  I fed him a little rein, and a little more, and still more.  Stretchy trot! Legit stretchy trot with contact! I rode half a lap like that, then picked him back up, and then invited him to stretch again.  Wow.  That was a great moment!

I also watched some video Liz shot a couple days ago.  She quietly got about three minutes of trot work that I didn’t know she was shooting.  We had a few nice moments but watching that video, I can clearly see that I”m still closing my hip angle.  I have to sit up and engage my core if I want that horse to move!

So, a nice win tonight, but much remains to do.

Puzzle pieces

He *can* stretch down and out.

Finally.  Finally finally finally.  We had a really decent ride today, following a nice effort yesterday.   Things are starting to come back together, and I’m relieved.

When we started picking at my position a couple weeks ago, one of the things I was struggling with was getting Derby to move forward beyond a sluggish trot.  Christy theorized that my closed hip angle was actually sending Derby “whoa” signals, even as I was asking for “go.”   As we worked on my position, Derby started moving out when the situation up on his back improved.  That was great but those moments were fleeting.

The good news is that things are definitely better.  Yesterday we had a very nice ride.  Derby was a lot more forward and I worked hard on staying balanced, especially as I circle to the right, since I’ve noticed that I tend to collapse to the right, causing Derby to lean inward.  I rode lots of patterns. paying attention to my balance, position and aids going left, and then maintaining those going to the right.   The quality of Derby’s trot and our balance through the turns improved.


This long German dressage term doesn’t have an exact English translation.  It means looseness, but with suppleness, energy and throughness.  It’s hard to describe in words, but I see it now when I watch Christy ride Remy, or when she lets Liam stretch after they’ve been working.  The horses go forward with enthusiasm, but with balance.  They are on Christy’s aids, and work beautifully over their backs.  I want to do that.  And today, we came close.

With images of Christy’s recent beautiful rides on Remy fixed in my mind, I mounted up today, determined to build on my good ride yesterday.  Right off the bat, I had a really nice, swingy walk.  Derby was marching along with purpose and energy.  After walking around on the buckle, I  gathered up the reins and started to work on suppling.  We flexed left, flexed right and did some shallow serpentines. The contact improved, at least it felt like it did, so I decided to check.  Turning onto a long diagonal, I fed Derby some additional rein, and he stretched nicely.  I sponged the outside rein, and pushed with my inside seatbone.  He stretched a bit more.  This was a real improvement.

Circling right, I asked Derby to trot, and got a prompt response, and a decent trot. I repeated some of the suppling exercises we did at the walk.  The contact improved even more,  as did Derby’s trot.   Taking advantage of the much-improved and steady contact, I decided to work on adjustablity within the trot.  Heading into a turn on the short side, I half halted, and asked Derby to hold a smaller trot, and he did.  Turning onto the long side, I kept the contact, and increased my my post. Derby responded hugely, stepping out into a really solid, forward, ground-covering trot, pushing from behind.  I half halted into the next corner, and felt his back really come up.  Down the next long side, his trot increased in power.    For fun, we did some nice shoulder in, and Derby responded easily and willingly.

I was thrilled. Around we went, changing directions, getting quality and power both ways.  We repeated the shoulder in.  Derby’s back was up, and it felt great. so I fed him a bit more rein produce a stretch as we trotted.  I did dump him onto his forehand, but I sat up, half-halted, and we recovered.

This was, by far, the best ride I’ve had on Derby to date.  I think Christy really nailed it when she spotted the fact that my old position was blocking Derby’s forward gears.  I’m excited for my lesson tomorrow night to show the boss what we’ve found!

Stretch goals

Finally! I'm staying out of his way, and presto - the back comes up. Good boy!

Stretchy trot is not a movement I’ve practiced much or ride well.   But as I’ve noted previously, I need to make a point of riding Derby over his back, and stretching into contact, in order to start building correct muscle, fitness, and his top line.  I’m also trying to build my riding muscles back up and improve the independence of my hands.  We focused on these issues in my lessons later this week.

A nice albeit fleeting moment from our lesson 6/22

On Wednesday, Christy had me pick up from my earlier ride on Atlanta, and focus on moving the horse around with my seat, while also keeping my hands quiet.   We had some nice moments but really, the ride was mostly about me trying to get my act together, and continue to figure out what makes Derbyhorse tick.

She had me start by asking Derby to relax and give his neck at the walk.  We then moved into some trot work, starting out on a loopy rein.  I’ve discovered that I have to stay out of Derby’s face, and instead use my seat and leg aids – especially an active inside leg – to generate the results I want.

Which is easier said than done for me at the moment.

Tonight’s ride was better, chiefly because Christy had us do a new exercise that worked really well.  I started out  trotting on a loopy rein, exaggerating the loop to keep my hands entirely out of the picture.

Christy then had me do two things – post from a half seat, staying off his back, and simultaneously move him around without the reins – which is another way of saying “get busy with your inside leg!”

The response from Derby was almost immediate:

Derby stretches on a loopy rein.

Derby stretched down, and stayed there.  We motored around like that for a while, despite the fact that I was dumping him on his forehand.

Christy had me gently shorten the reins a hair,  and focus keeping my hands steady, telling me to think of my hands as side reins.  She also had me close my fingers, reminding me that “There’s no way for you to give with open fingers,” while also telling me to let Derby find the end of the reins and invite him to hold the contact in his stretch.

And that’s when things started to feel pretty good indeed.  Derby’s back came up a bit, and while he wasn’t moving with a big, ground-covering stride, he was holding the contact and keeping his back up – a definite improvement from motoring around on his forehand as we had been doing earlier in the ride.  We were able hold the stretch for as long as I was able to maintain the light seat, steady hands and active inside leg, which as you can see from the video below of this ride is still very much a work in progress.  And while the quality of the trot wasn’t great, in reality, there’s only so much I can do at once. I’ll start asking him for a proper working trot as I get better at holding the light seat with independent hands.  Anyway, for the sake of documentation, here it is:

The good news is that we really got the hang of stretching, and eventually Derby brought his back up, seeking and holding the contact.  I’m really pleased, because after spending the last few months watching Christy patiently build Remy’s fitness, I know that a lot of steady trot work in a stretchy, connected frame is an important building block.  And, at training level, the stretchy trot carries a double coefficient – it’s an important test of the horse’s connection.   Getting good at this is important, but I know I can do this on my own and that we’ll improve.  Tonight was just the start.

Oh what a night!

Developing a stretchy trot

Today was chilly, but the temps climbed throughout the day, and by the time I headed to the barn, it was a balmy 10 degrees.  That’s 22 degrees warmer than last night, and it felt pretty good.

After my impromptu ride with Liz last night, I wanted to ride again.  I was expecting the footing to be frozen, so I decided to set up a little obstacle course to give the horse something different to look at.  I pinged Liz and Christy, and we made a riding date.

Happily the footing had actually improved over the course of the day. I set up the obstacles anyway – variety is always a good thing.   I put out a couple raised poles, laid a pole between two jump standards that looked like gates, and arranged four cones in a zigzag pattern.

We cranked the tunes, and Maddie and I joined Liz and Christy in the arena, admiring the boys’ matching sheets.  Aren’t they handsome?

We took our time warming up.   I moved the mare around, marveling at how mellow she was, despite being cooped up for a few days.  Liam and Cloud were also model citizens, and we joked about our hot and crazy TBs as we rode around on the buckle.

My plan for the ride was evolving – the footing was decent, and I was wearing more appropriate attire (my Mountain Horse full seat insulated riding pants – they’re extremely warm.)  We started out curving around the cones, walking through the gate, and high-stepping over the raised poles.

We moved off into a trot, and I made an effort to get the mare moving.  I wasn’t asking for a big, forward trot, but I did want her to round and track up.   She fussed a bit and was bracing.  I sat up an rode, giving her a whack with the whip that I’m sure she barely felt thanks to the thick quarter sheet draped over her hindquarters.  However, that got her attention, and she started to come into my hand and quit the fussing.

As I was gaining Maddie’s cooperation, I kept an eye on Christy.  I don’t get to watch her ride as much as I’d like to, and I’m always curious to see what she’ll do.  Tonight, she was really just letting Liam stretch, and he appreciated it, trotting enthusiastically around the arena, doing laps of stretchy trot.

Starting to stretch

As I developed better contact and a rounder horse, I started to stretch her down.  I’ve not ridden a lot of stretchy trot – it makes me feel a bit vulnerable and I’m not fully comfortable with it.  It’s something I need to practice. Mads started to stretch, while also staying on the bit.

I concentrated on holding the outside rein, and playing gently on the inside rein to keep myself from holding it to heavily (a bad habit I have) and to encourage the mare to continue to stretch.

I really wanted to keep her on the bit, near vertical, and keep driving her forward as we stretched.    As we went around, I heard something beautiful, and it wasn’t the radio.  It was Christy, saying that we looked good.   That was music to my ears, because Christy doesn’t offer empty compliments.

Unbeknownst to me, she had taken out her phone and started recording some video.  I’m glad she did – it was nice to see our work.

Getting a better stride ...

I continued to encourage her with my inside leg while feeding her rein.  I’m going to have to bite the bullet and get warmblood length reins – I hit the buckle before she was as low as I wanted her to go.  I had to stretch my arms to give her more room.  We didn’t get all the way there, it wasn’t a stretch that would get a good score in the ring, but I was happy.  The trot quality was good, and she was over her back and nicely on the bit.  I’ll take it, on a 10 degree night.

Our best work of the night. Mads is round, on the bit stretching and tracking up. Yay!

And the video clip of the stretching (thanks again, Christy.)

The fun didn’t end there.  Liz was riding Cloud bareback, and they looked fantastic.  Christy pulled Liam’s saddle off, and joined her.  They both have such nice, balanced seats, and they stay in tune with their horses as they trotted and cantered.  They tried some peer pressure, trying to get me to try going bareback on Maddie. I wasn’t quite ready for that tonight – I still need to master trotting and cantering without stirrups.  I did promise to pull the saddle in a lesson sometime soon.   I’ll let you know how that goes!

A good ride!

We had a good lesson tonight, which saw another two firsts – we started to work in a slightly higher frame, raising Maddie’s poll.  And we also had the beginnings of a stretchy trot!  Things were good right out of the gate – it was chilly and Maddie was more forward from the get-go.   She felt great – light, responsive, and on the bit.  I love how supple she’s becoming – I can bend her gently while trotting simply by tightening one hip flexor.  This is useful, because it enables me to quickly flex her this way and that, while staying out of her mouth.   I can also bend her pretty quickly into the outside rein if I need to re-establish contact.

So things were looking good straight away. Even warming up, Mads was steady, even and enthusiastic, before I even asked for much.

Christy took advantage of the nicely forward horse, and we worked on adjusting within the gait, and especially on covering more ground with our “big” trot. We used the short sides to rebalance, using half halts to shorten Maddie’s stride.  Then, on the long side, Christy had me focus on increasing the scope of my post, working in a slight pause at the top of my post.  Doing so, according to Christy, gives the mare more time to cover ground. I think we’re getting close to an extension. Dare I hope?

Developing a reaching, ground covering trot

Christy also had me work on shortening my reins just a bit (I have a bad habit anyway of riding with them too long) and raising Maddie’s front end.  We’re not simply cranking her nose in – I’m working from my seat, and working to create a more uphill frame.   This was the first time in recorded history that we’ve looked this pretty:

Good mare!

Maddie fussed a bit as we worked uphill, and Christy advised me that I’ll need to pay attention to letting her stretch on my terms.  She also reminded me that this work is hard for Mads, who isn’t used to carrying herself this way.  I’m going to be taking more weight in the reins – and I’ll need to hold it.  And I’ll have to work more stretch work into our schooling, to reward and rest my hard working buddy. So, we started to practice stretching at the trot – again, something totally new.

This was a brilliant lesson, and a great confidence builder, moving me out of my comfort zone in terms of riding more forwardly, and in terms of stretching.  I was reminded of  another friend who when working on stretching her mare at the trot and canter was told to “be vulnerable.”  That’s certainly what it feels like to me… but that stretch work feels pretty good.