The Horse is a Mirror

He has a really nice canter. It will be nice when I can ride it effectively.

The canter transition is definitely improving.   Derby is responding quickly, and to the left, at least, I’m fairly well balanced and he steps right into  the upward transition.

I’m still struggling with my position when going right, and this was clear when we changed direction.  Our failure to pick up the right lead was undoubtedly my fault, not the Derbster’s.  This was one of those “the horse is the mirror” moments.  Derby has no problem picking up the right lead canter. It’s not a training issue.  The problem arises when I’m unbalanced and it feels off. At those moments Derby says “Nope.  It’s better for all concerned if we keep trotting.  You get your act together, and we’ll canter.”  I really can’t blame him.

So Christy had me work on getting a good connection and improving our trot going right.  We started out with focusing for a minute on my control of Derby’s shoulders.  Doing developed some steady contact, and then added a little leg yield and the trot really improved.  I could feel Derby’s back come up and best of all, he really stretched into the contact.

Piece by piece we’ll put this back together!


Crisp evening

Gazing (thankfully not riding) into the sunset

The weather is getting crisp.  So were my canter transitions tonight.  Derby was much more responsive, and I rode them a bit better too. I didn’t do as many canter-trot-canter transitions as I wanted to – it was a busy night, but after a couple canters we had a pretty decent trot going.  The connection is still lacking.  I’m not sweating this at the moment.  Right now, installing “forward” is key.   Staying balanced and executing the transition with grace is still a challenge but it will become even easier as Derby becomes more responsive and steps into the canter when I ask him.  Reducing the wishy-washiness of my aids will help greatly in this endeavor.

Lesson tomorrow night.  It’s going to be a little chiller, even.  Here’s hoping for a report of even more crisp work tomorrow.

This too shall pass.

On some days, riding is empowering.  On others, it can be infinitely humbling.  Tonight, as I bumbled around in my lesson, it definitely was one of the latter.  My position is feeling good, my balance has certainly improved, but a lot of other things have slid.  And they all begin with good contact, which comes from generating power behind and catching it in the reins when the horse stretches forward into the bit.

Needless to say, Derby generates about as much jet wash as a butterfly flapping from daisy to daisy. He creates little to no cosmic disturbance.   So tonight we worked on resetting the gauge on the working gaits.  We rode canter transitions.

Okay.  The next time I hear some uninformed twit say horseback riding isn’t work, isn’t exercise, I swear to God I am going to drag them by the collar to the barn and plunk them down on my saintly horse, and have them ride trot-canter-trot transitions.  Without bracing on the reins, while sitting softly in the saddle and not gripping with the legs.  In other words, holding one’s self up with one’s core.  It is hard work and my Lord, we have a long way to go.   I rode like the proverbial “soup sandwich.”

But it was really fun!  Half the time I wasn’t listening to Christy (sorry, Boss) because my inner voice was saying “Dang, he has a niiice canter.” As we did transitions, Derby started to really pick up his feet and roll, and he became a lot more responsive.

So this needs to be the new normal.  I know these moments of flopping incompetence will pass.  Probably not soon enough for my tastes, but soon enough we’ll start achieving some harmony and some grace.

And some power!


Practice braids. My first ever. Meh.

With the show just days away, I still have a lot to do.   And I got a rude awakening last night when Christy reminded me that USDF rules apply to this show – meaning jackets, braids, the whole kit and caboodle.   Crap! Braids!  I was planning on rocking a nicely pulled mane.  So tonight I experimented, and came up with something that will look OK and won’t require me to learn how to sew in button braids, yet.  Some additional practice is needed, however.

In addition to the braids, we also had a long list of things to address in the lesson, chief among them the free walk and downward transitions.  We made some progress in the free walk – if I get really active and push with my seat, I can get Derby to stretch and swing.  A bit.  This is very much a work in progress.

Our trot work is almost pretty.

Downward transitions went better.  Christy had me work on getting Derby more in front of my leg by having me trot, walk one step and then immediately trot again.  This forced me to use my half halt and within a minute he was working very nicely – his back was up, his hind engaged and we had good contact.  When we added the halt through a medium walk we had our best executions of this movement to date.  Not perfect, but markedly better.

Our trot work was better too.  Christy worked with me on being more assertive (and nagging less) and we had a more forward, quality trot tonight.    So, progress.

In other news, the mosquitoes are close to plague levels.  The nights are lovely and cool, but the horses are being pestered by ravening hordes of evil airborne bloodsuckers.  Because it’s cooled off, I hauled out Jag’s old fly sheet and boots, and I festooned Derby in protective gear.   It looks goofy, but while the others run and roll, he stands quietly. As long as it stays cool, I’ll keep him decked out in his bug suit.

I think he looks kind of cute. In a pathetic and dorky way.


Bit by bit by bit

Almost square at the halt. Almost.

Tonight I rode one of the tests for the first time, and my first run-through illustrated perfectly (for me at least) the purpose of the tests, namely, testing the rider’s abilities to execute a series of movements – many of which complement each other – smoothly and in an organized and deliberate fashion.

Do you hear that, Self?  Organized and deliberate.

While we had a few decent moments, the downward transitions were a bit of a mess.  Okay, “bit of a mess” is being generous.   They were fifty kinds of ugly, truth be told.

I’m sitting here reviewing my videos (thank you again, Christy, for being so adept at grabbing video as you teach!) and I just discovered a key problem.  My transitions are too abrupt.  I’m not thinking “smaller trot, now smaller, now smaller still, walk!” as I go into the transitions.  And by smaller trot, I mean *half halt* half halt*half halt.  This sequence shows what happens when I transition too abuptly.   Here goes:

Going into the ugly tranistion. Our trot isn't terrible though he could be rounder and more active. But for us at the moment, this is far from our worst.

The ugly transition, in progress. I've started to halt,with no half halts or core engagement to be seen, and I've given Derby about 5 miles of rein.

 Lovely. But wait.  There’s more.

Full on ugly. Gaping mouth, hollow back, and he's on his forehand.Yuck!

How to rectify ugly? Hold the reins and get busy with your inside leg - at least, you can see this approach starting to work for me here.

In literally the next few milliseconds, Derby's back is up, and his mouth is closed. Cue Heavenly host strumming on harps.

Okay, so that save is nice but it doesn’t do much for me in a test, where transitions are scored.  I’m sending a link to this post to Christy and I am sure we’re going to drill this tomorrow.

There were some bright spots in tonight’s ride.  I got some of the nicest trot to date from Derby.  His back was way up, and it felt wonderful.  All of our current problems can be laid squarely on my doorstep.  Derby is a sweet, willing horse and tries hard.   I like him more and more each day and am really looking forward to our journey together!


I’ve been cramming in as many lessons as my schedule – and Christy’s – will permit.  I’m glad I did, because it’s paying off.  Today, riding solo, I had a solid ride and even logged a few improvements.

As I mounted up, I ran down my mental checklist.   Don’t accept the wrong answer, like sluggish responses, a hollow back or an up-flung head.  Correct problems immediately. Hold the contact.  Use my seat and legs, not hands.

After letting Derby stretch a bit, I started more serious work at the walk.  He was a bit locked up on the right side, so I worked on suppling him, flexing right and left, then bending and a little shoulder in, while staying round.    Moving into the trot, things improved.  Our upward transition was really nice and Derby was a lot more forward. He stayed nice and round as we motored around.  I had to work a bit on roundness and connection as we did 20m circles, but we produced some good work and Derby was moving beautifully laterally.

For fun, I asked for a canter, and got a decent upward transition and a much more forward canter than I had in one of my lessons last week, in which I had to really encourage Derby to move out.

Next, we worked on some transitions, practicing halting through a working walk. The first few were ugly, and Derby’s elevated nose told me all I needed to know – I wasn’t riding him into the contact – I was giving him rein as we slowed.  I tried again, holding the reins, keeping my shoulders back, and engaging my core.  Better.

We finished up doing some relaxed changes of rein across the diagonal, and then some elongated figure 8’s, bisecting the arena across the centerline.  I wanted to do a little work on the tight turns off the diagonal and onto the centerline I’ll encounter in the tests.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the ride, especially the fact that we were able to maintain decent quality throughout most of the ride.  It’s back to boot camp starting on Monday.   I’m glad I was able to get my homework for today done.  While I wouldn’t call it “perfect practice,” it was an above average ride for me.

Glimmer of hope

He's a good buddy.

Well, after today’s lesson, I have a little more hope for our outing next weekend.  Unlike Thursday’s ride, which was about 95% icky and about 5% acceptable, today I was able to maintain a rounder horse, steadier contact and a nicer gait.  Derby was moving very nicely off my aids, and our geometry was decent too.  Transitions still need work but I have six rides until we trot down the centerline, which is plenty of time to tighten the screws.

So this ride was much improved.  I’m starting to believe we won’t make a terrible hash of our walk-trot tests next weekend.  Needless to say, I’m relieved.  I think Christy is, too!

What was the secret to today’s significant improvements?  Actually, there were a few.

    • Intention.  Christy gave me a little pep talk, saying that I need to be more demanding of myself, and the horse.  “Require the response,” she reminded me. “Ask nicely once, and then use your whip if you have to.”  Sage advice, and it worked.   Our gait quality was much better.
    • Immediacy.  There’s no reason to go around half a lap with a hollow horse.  When Derby goes hollow I need to correct him pronto.   My timing is getting better but this does still need work.
    • Steady hands & hold the contact.  This means closing my fingers, holding my hands steady and quiet (and keeping them independent) and adding a little pressure before transitions.  Adding pressure before I require (yes, require, not “ask for”) a movement is a great reminder to not throw the contact away.
    • Inside leg, inside leg, inside leg.  Ride the horse from my seat.
    • Use the core.  Keeping my core engaged adds to the steady contact – especially in transitions. If I collapse my core when I do a transition, I’ve effectively given away the reins.  Derby, God love him, is an opportunist, and he readily pops his head up and nose out when I let him.

So, things were better today.  Looking forward to getting back on tomorrow!


At least his back is up, but this is a pretty stodgy trot

I’m taking Derby out to a schooling show next weekend.  We’re not ready for much and are just going to do walk-trot tests.  Why am I bothering? I’d like to take him out and about, and it will be fun to ride in a full size arena.  On the up side, the new saddle is working well for him – he’s not sore and is working comfortably. But we have just two weeks of introductory work, and are just working up to 40 minute rides.   Gait quality is an issue, my riding is still rusty and we both have a long way to go in terms of fitness.

Ugh, we are so not ready.

We’re focusing on getting Derby in front of my leg, gait quality and transitions in my lessons.  The pressure of a show – even a schooling show – is undeniable because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and Type-A sort of critter.  In actuality, this may work out well, because these three things – getting the horse forward and generating quality, correct gaits and riding lots of transitions are exactly what I need to get down to build Derby’s condition and move forward in our training.

But dang, I have a long road ahead of me.

The trot is getting a bit better

For the last couple nights, Christy has had me focus on riding from my core, while also asking for forward, keeping my hands quiet and bending the horse into the outside rein.  This is all basic stuff, and ten months ago, these movements were instinctive.  Presently, that’s not the case.  I feel like I’m multi-tasking and it’s tough.

Christy has been drilling me and man, I am feeling it.  My abs are sore and my legs hurt too. I spent extra time giving Derby a little massage tonight and hand grazing, because I bet he’s feeling it too.

The instructions come rapid fire from the middle of the ring.  Hold my reins.  Steady my hands.  Close my fingers.  Leg on.  Ask for more.  Make it happen. NOW!  Bend him.  Inside leg.  Come on, bend!  There! Leg on!

Rinse, repeat.

A respectable trot, though I need to sit up straighter, engage my core, and round the horse.

I’m not expecting killer scores.  I’ve decided that I will be happy if my test comments do not include the words “lacks energy.”

Importantly, the urgency of the looming outing is really helping me focus on forward, gait quality and transitions.  Who knows when we will make our recognized debut – that is months and months away – but I promise you, we will be fit, forward and correct when that happens!

Now, off for a warm shower and some advil.  Dang trainers.


Joy, Pain & the Outside Rein

Today was truly a day with ups and downs, starting right off the bat with a text from the barn – Derby had been kicked.  It wasn’t an emergency, but he did have some scrapes and the location – the lower part of his chest – isn’t ideal.  The barn owner and her daughter (an ER nurse, and a nurse-to-be) did some triage and cleaned things up.  He’s tender but sound.  Happily, Derby and the other low man in the group who also gets picked on a lot are being moved tomorrow.  This is a relief to me – clearly Derby (and Remy) weren’t in a compatible group – and horses can be tough on each other.

I did an easy ride on Derby tonight, wanting to be sure he was okay after his ordeal this morning, and he was.  We rode outside and he was moving well and willingly.    It sure felt better than yesterday – I had a hideous ride, due (I’m sure) to the lingering effects of the weekend.   My riding muscles were screaming, it was hot, and I think we lasted about 20 minutes.

Today was decidedly better, but I still wasn’t terribly happy with myself.  I could feel myself tipping forward, and letting my leg curl back, so I did some laps in two-point and also did a good exercise Christy taught me – standing two beats and then posting two beats, over and over.  It helps build balance and steady the lower leg.  We did these exercises with loop in the rein – I wanted to be sure that I didn’t accidentally pop him in the mouth if I bobbled.

After we had been moving around for a while, I worked on Derby’s responsiveness to my leg.  I’m still wearing tiny spurs (until my legs are stronger and steadier) but a larger pair have been purchased.   For now, I have to turn my toes all the way out and poke very deliberately if I want to put some spur on.  Which I did, when Derby declined to heed my request (delivered via the inside leg) to step his fine self over, and fill up my outside rein.  He bent outward, effectively counterbending a bit.  I turned my heel in and *poked*.  A ha!  He stepped over!

I’m being very, very careful not to nag with my aids.  My legs are either on or off at the moment – I’m trying to avoid grey areas.  And after a few pokes with the spur, Derby stepped nicelyunderneath himself, and somewhat  into my outside rein when I asked with just some calf pressure.  I say “somewhat” because Derby resists contact a bit, but I’m pretty sure it’s partially a  training issue but primarily a rider issue – he’s better when he’s 1) warmed up and 2) I really ride.

I finished the ride practicing working from my seat – steering Derby with my leg and seat aids, and halting from my seat.  It’s all a work in progress but this sweet boy is a quick study.

After I put Derby away, it was time for my lesson.   Cathy is away this week, and has handed me Atlanta’s reins.  After a rough patch this spring with sore hocks and some farrier issues, Cathy has gotten to the bottom of Atlanta’s issues, and the mare is going magnificently.  I had such fun riding her, and can’t wait to get back on tomorrow and do more.

Christy had seen my ride yesterday which I know wasn’t pretty, and asked me what we were working on tonight.  I told her that I suspected it would be more of the seat and balance issues, but once we got going  … well, things went pretty well.  It was great to ride a big, proper trot again, and while Christy agreed that my stamina has waned, she told me that my form was looking pretty good.  Hooray!  I don’t suck after all!  After hearing that, as I cruised around on Atlanta, I felt nothing but joy.

So the focus turned away from my postion, and instead to the outside rein, and moving the mare around with my seat.  We did an exercise I remember doing with Maddie, when Christy needed to already.  She had me bend the mare to and fro, from just my seat, keeping my hands still.  Then – and tonight with Atlanta – the effect was immediate – the mares both softened and stretched into the contact, backs up and engaged.

We also did some transition work, because I forgot entirely how to ride a graceful downward transition.  By half-halting the mare as I posted, and gradually slowing Atlanta, I was able to produce a nice, smooth, relatively engaged transition. This will be a particularly good exercise to work with Derby on as he gets stronger – half halts are an area of communication we need to improve.

Speaking of Maddie ….

We got some exciting news this weekend about my former mount, Maddie.   She and Heather (her new owner) competed in their first HT this weekend – a rated show up at Silverwood.   They went out at BN (Maddie is just learning to jump) and … they won!  Heather is clearly the perfect person for Mads, who looked enthusiastic and happy in the videos I got to see.  It was thrilling watching my old girl out on XC and in the stadium.  I’m so proud of her!  Congrats to Heather on a job very well done, indeed.  🙂

Green horse, grey horse.

I got a real lesson in contrasts today, riding Oliver and Frank.  Both are total loves, and both are Thoroughbred geldings, but the similarities end there. Oliver is a green bean, but Frank knows more about dressage than me, having been trained to Second Level.

I rode Oliver first, and was hoping that I’d have a better ride than I did yesterday.  Oliver was hell-bent on testing me on Saturday, acting spooky and distracted, possibly because he had a little extra energy since the horses were stuck inside due to some awful weather.  I spent a lot of time growling at him, and it took a while for him to settle so we could really work.  Because he was being silly, I elected to get and keep his attention by doing lots of transitions and changes of direction.   In addition to being silly, Oliver also tried to convince me that he had forgotten everything he knew about transitions downward from my seat. Instead of responding to my half-halts by starting to bring his back up and stepping under himself – as he had been doing sooo nicely last weekend – yesterday he was ignoring the half halt – and the fact that my butt was planted in the saddle – and barreling on.

That would not do.

We did walk/halts (while spiraling in and out) until I got the crisp response I’d been seeking.  Then we moved back into trotting.  I started out just going down the rail, but wasn’t getting a satisfactory response.  Oliver had what Steph calls “OMG ears” and was actively looking for reasons to spook .   So I started riding figure 8’s – little ones at one end of the arena, and then larger ones, and then long flat ones, bisecting the arena down the centerline.

Things got better immediately, because I was keeping Oliver focused on me.  We worked on walk/trot/walk/trot transitions and he did pretty well.

Today was a different story.  Oliver was a total star.  We had our best trot work to date – I got him to move out, and we successfully completed laps of the arena trotting nicely both ways.  He was relaxed and just rolled along.  I also asked him more insistently to reach down, and while I wouldn’t say that he was round, he wasn’t wildly inverted.  I was proud of Oliver, and told him so!

We also had some very nice transitions from my seat, from trot to walk, and from walk to halt.  We worked on those while we also worked on steering – around the mounting block, figure-8s all over the place, you name it – and Oliver was a champ.  I was so pleased with him today!  I rewarded him with a hand grazing session (on top of lots of cookies) before I turned him back out to lounge in the sun.

After gulping some water, I went and fetched Frank.  My old buddy was feeling really good today, and surprised me by starting out at a smart pace when I picked up the trot after we warmed up.  I let him roll, hopping into two-point and getting a feel for this different feeling gait.  It has a lot more motion than the jog Frank offers when he’s feeling creaky.  He was getting a little strung out, so I decided it was time to help him out.  I started posting, took a feel on his mouth … and discovered that he wasn’t going to give it to me.  If I wanted Frank to round, he was going to make me work for it.

I was posting out of a half-seat, to stay off his back, and I increased my post, to make more “room” for a bigger stride.  I also got busy with my inside leg, engaging my core and making a point of holding my outside rein and asking Frank to soften with the inside rein.  Within a few strides, I got results.  Frank took the contact, stretched, and the trot started to feel a lot better. I tested my contact by seeing if Frank would follow my contact downward – if he didn’t, that would tell me that he was just going around with a fake headset. I invited a stretch, and got it.  I had true contact. Yay!  I could feel myself holding him between the inside leg and my outside rein. It’s been a looong time since I felt that!

This was the first ride in a log time I that I had generated proper contact.  As we went around the short side, I decided to throw in a circle to give another rider some room to maneuver.  And at that point, I got busted by the former school horse, who didn’t feel I was using my inside leg sufficiently, and ignored my inadequate request to do a 20 meter circle.  Crap!

I gathered myself and asked for another circle as we approached A.  it was ugly, because I forgot to close my fingers around the outside rein as I applied my inside leg (with more vigor this time.) Frank waggled his ears at me (I swear he did!) as he popped his outside shoulder out. Crap!

I sat myself up, made sure my feet were indeed where they belonged (at the girth, not curled back to Frank’s flanks) , held that damn outside rein, turned my left toe outward and deliberately applied my spur while also giving Frank a tap tap with my whip.   I got the “yes ma’am” response I sought, and we circled nicely, with decent contact and a quality trot.

We went down the long side, and as we headed into the short side, I gave Frank a little half-halt, to bring him more into hand.  We kept the little trot long the short side, then took a diagonal, which went quite well, since I 1) half-halted again down the short side and 2) looked where I wanted to go and 3) actually balanced the horse between my inside leg and outside rein, for a change.

We did another nice circle at C, with no shoulder popping or ear-waggling.  And then another down the long side for good measure.

I was panting and sweating – partially because I was dressed a bit too heavily, and partly because I’m in horrific shape after having been sick on and off for months.  But it felt great to really ride, even if Frank was channeling Christy and busting me when I got sloppy.  We cooled out, and then went to graze.

Two totally different horses, two totally different rides, and a completely satisfying day!