Better Than Ribbons

Establishing connection, getting Derbs to reach out and down to the end of the reins.

Establishing connection, getting Derbs to reach out and down to the end of the reins.

I’m very fortunate to ride with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Our ages span more than six decades, starting with our youngest riders who are newly turned teenagers. All are supportive and friendly, but not effusive, unless somebody shows up with the divine new saddle pad and then yes, I admit, there might be some excited discussion of coordinating polos and general gushing. But when you ride with Christy, you develop an eye for (and a real appreciation of) correct work, so the compliments we tend to pay each other are genuine, and they are earned.  Which is why Derby I have not been on the receiving end of any over the last few, frustrating months.

That changed over the last couple days, however.  Our most talented young rider commented a couple times on how well Derby was going, and asked what was making the difference.  (Copious credit was given to the saddle.)

Then last night, something happened that has never happened before – another rider stopped and watched the end of the lesson, and a minute later, Christy dashed out of the arena to get her camera.

What was creating the fuss?  On the face of it, not much – it was basic trot work, but with a big difference.  I had finally managed to develop a genuine connection and apparently it looked as good (and dramatically different!) as it felt.

Connection starts with the rider’s leg powering the horse forward (1) and ends when energy is returned to the rider’s hand (8).

By “connection” I’m not referring to roundness or contact.  By “connection” I mean that I was generating power from Derby’s hind legs, which was carried through his top line and into the reins, then returned back to me, allowing me to recycle, store or deploy it as I wished.   It’s an unbelievable feeling of power, not unlike that feeling you get as a plane is taxiing for takeoff, when you can feel the power of the engines propelling and then lifting the jet off the runway.

We were drilling the new position, getting me out of my hips and into what feels like a less rigid, not forced and more following and balanced seat. When I get there, effect on horse is immediate – his back comes up and carries himself really nicely.

As I drilled the position on a loopy rain, in order to stay out of his face, Christie had me add more power, and more power again, from the back end. Pretty soon Derby had stretched out to the end of those long reins, completing the connection. I think that’s the key part.  The horse has to complete the connection.

It felt amazing.  Derby’s back was up and swinging. His trot felt powerful and springy.  Best of all we maintained it, loop after loop.   That’s when Christy went dashing for her camera.

We gave it a shot but our second attempt wasn’t as good as our previous – both Derbs and I were getting tired by this point.  The video isn’t great but the still pinned to the top of this post shows how differently Derby was moving once I figured out to really invite him to reach into the contact and create that closed loop that generates the power that underpins correct dressage.

It was a great ride, and the extra affirmation from my fellow barn denizens was better than any ribbon.


Destination: Atlanta

Atlanta and me, after my first lesson on her.

My friend Cathy just got a high powered job, and found herself insanely busy at about the same time I found myself horseless, and she offered me some saddle time on her fancy mare, Atlanta. I was thrilled and readily accepted.  Atlanta has more training than any horse I’ve ridden.  She’s a beautiful Hanoverian, and I’ve spent the last year admiring her from afar.

Cathy and Atlanta at their first dressage show last summer.

I’ve not been in the saddle much lately, between my travel schedule for work, and getting sick.  Between my fast-deteriorating riding muscles, and Cathy’s leather saddle (I’m used to my grippy suede Isabell) I had my work cut out for me.   We walked and I worked on getting Atlanta to stretch into contact.

Starting to figure things out

After we warmed up, we started to trot.  Christy warned me ahead of time that Atlanta’s gaits are different than the Thoroughbreds I’m used to riding.  She has more suspension and is a bigger mover.   The difference was immediately evident, even though I wasn’t asking her to really move.  I had to post much bigger to stay with her, and her motion pitched me forward.

I felt totally discombobulated trotting. I have a lot of work to do.

I hopped up into a two point to try to get my legs under me, and work on stretching down into my stirrups. It didn’t feel great, but Atlanta motored on.  She’s a forgiving girl.

Working on our connection

We didn’t do much – I’m still getting over a sinus infection am not 100% – but it was a good ride, and a fun one.  Two of my last three rides have been pretty high drama (a spill, and a bolt) so it was really nice to get on a horse I feel safe on.  I’m taking another lesson on Atlanta this weekend and hope to have something more interesting to report.  In the meantime, thanks again, Cathy, for letting me ride your wonderful mare!

Forward … and upward

Tonight I rode the mare more forwardly, but we still weren’t forward enough.  Our ride was better and we had fewer of the problems I enumerated yesterday, but I’m sure glad my lesson is tomorrow night.  I must work on bending Mads into that outside rein. And I need to develop a better response when I ask for “forward, NOW.”

One interesting thing did happen tonight, and unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone standing around with a video camera, because I sure would have liked to see what was going on.

As I was asking Maddie for a bigger trot down the long side, I continued to flex her slightly right and left, asking for a tiny bit of give.  Then, along the short side, I would half halt her, and ask her for a little trot.  The goal of this is (among other things) is to work on our adjustability within the gait.  But down one of the long sides, I felt a few things happen.  I felt her back come up. And then I felt like I was going to be bounced off.  The trot had a lot more motion than the regular working trot does.
Ah-ha, I thought to myself.  This is the big trot with more suspension.  I adjusted my post, spending a little more time in the air, matching Maddie’s stride. This made the trot a bit easier to ride – but it was still a challenge.   As we came into the short end of the arena, I half-halted, bending into the corner. Her back was still up, but the stride shortened. Interestingly, the motion I felt at the big trot – probably increased suspension – continued at the little trot.  A quick consult with Christy afterward suggests that we were starting to collect a bit.

I’ll have a camera at my lesson tomorrow. I’d really like to see exactly what we’re doing – especially if we’re starting to collect.  That would be news indeed.

Hanging out in her pj's