Tearing myself away ….

Just when things were getting really good, I have to take a (very) short break from riding.  Short, as in two days.  And really, I’m only “losing” one day, since Derbs gets his fall shots and dentistry on Monday, and would have the day off due to the vet work, whether or not I was in town.   That said, the day is dawning sunny, and promises to be warm (for November.) It would be an awesome day to ride, but I’m on the way to the airport this morning.

While I don’t want to give the impression that all of my problems are solved – far far from it! – it has been a gratifying week.   The work we did in my lesson (see “Tightening the Screws“) awakened me to the fact that I have been letting Derby steal rein – when I’m not just flat out throwing the reins at him – and I was putting him on his forehand.  Since that lesson, I can feel when this is happening, and while I still need a few strides to organize, think, take hold, half halt and close legs and engage core and hold contact and go now, horse! go! …. the good news is that I can get remedy the situation.

Our last couple rides have been really nice.  On Friday, the highlight was a nice, relaxed, rolling canter that felt balanced, and that I was able to influence.  Yesterday, the highlight was more canter work – transitions on a 20m c ircle.  We had a couple crap transitions that I knew were my fault, not Derby’s.  So I put him on a circle, got a nice, balanced trot going, and then rode some transitions.  As long as we stayed organized, they felt effortless.   Clearly, I need to work on managing and maintaining quality and balance through and between gaits – obviously, since this is really kind of a key component to a successful test.  I’m really happy with the quality of the gaits recently.   My rides this week have been really fun – it’s tough to get on a plane to leave, even if it is just a short trip.

Ask and you’ll receive

Nice contact, going right, in a bigger gait.

We’ve been working on establishing a better quality “default” working trot – specifically, tracking up and staying in front of my leg.  And overall, we’re doing much better work, and I’m able to generate good quality gaits  pretty much from the get-go.  There are two keys to our improvements – my staying balanced on the horse, and insisting upon a good forward response when I ask nicely.  Tonight a few other things happened – as the quality of the trot improved, I could feel Derby’s back come up nicely, and the contact really improved.  And watching the video after the ride, I can see that his mouth is a bit quieter and he’s a lot steadier in the bridle too. Best of all, however, I could feel Derby really engaging his hind and pushing forward.  That feeling of power is amazing.

Speaking of the video, here it is.  We were working on a few things – maintaining the quality of the gait, while also keeping Derby (and me) balanced and not falling inward – at one point you’ll hear Christy say “shift out” which means she wants me to get some weight into my outside stirrup and push the horse outward.  And late in the video you hear me say “Boosters!” – it’s at that point I felt Derby finally start to push.

We drilled big trot / little trot and then did some canter work that wasn’t fabulous.   I need to work on staying balanced in the transitions, and also reinforcing immediacy with Derby.  This will come.

LIttle trot. His back is up and he's holding the contact nicely.

Now I have something else to confess.  Last night I rode Tucker, the very fancy, very small (15 h) Quarter Horse.  Tuck has a ton of training and is light and responsive to his rider’s shifts in weight, balance and posture, and aids.  He was the perfect mirror for me last night, and the reflection wasn’t pretty.  It took me a while to figure out how to ride him – his short legs move a lot faster than Derby’s, and the tempo of his trot is a lot faster.  At first it made me laugh but within a few minutes, I apologized to Tuck for laughing at him, and asked him to please stop humbling me.  I want to do a few more rides on him because he forces me to stay very quiet – and makes it clear when I’m not.

Two firsts in one lesson.

We got some really nice work tonight.

We had such a fun ride tonight.  Going into my lesson, I mentioned to Christy that I wanted to work on “forward” first, because it’s dang hard to connect a horse that isn’t moving.    Once I had warmed Derby up and trotted a few laps, we cantered a few times – just a lap or so, because neither of us have an excess of fuel in the tank.  However, Derby still wasn’t in front of my leg, so Christy had us work on some exercises to get us there.

First, on a circle, she had me do trot-walk transitions, only walking two strides before picking up the trot again.  Initially, the transitions were mushy – indistinct and not prompt.  Christy had me remedy this by *requiring* a crisp, “trot NOW” transition.  Derby replied enthusiastically on our next attempt, stepping straight into a canter.

Not the prettiest moment in equitation, but I like how he's stepping up underneath himself.

Okay, so our first walk-canter transition was an accident, but it felt awesome.  I allowed Derby to roll for a minute, because an enthusiastic forward response is a very good answer.  The last thing I needed to do at that moment was to jerk him in the mouth and punish him.    From there, quickly tallied our second “first” of the evening.  Christy had us do trot-canter-trot-canter transitions, with just a few strides of each gait – and Derby responded with alacrity.  And after that, the overall quality of our work improved.

Best of all, we were able to get the transitions both ways. I still need to work myself into balance going right, but I’m able to get there, and able to generate good work that direction.

To wind the ride down and let the horse stretch (he’s been stuck in his stall for the last two days due to torrential rain and thunderstorms) we just trotted some laps – but I was asking for a big, reachy trot and also asking Derby to work over his back.  Building top line is still a top priority, and this is a good way to do it.  I was happy with his responsiveness and overall, it was a fantastic ride.  We need to keep him in front of my leg but we really are making progress.  He’s a good boy!

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.