Fine adjustments

He has good reason to look confused.

My slow crawl back to respectability continues.  In my lesson last night, my endurance improved enough to do more trot work, and it was pretty decent trot work.  With Christy’s coaching, we were able to produce a nicely connected and round trot that had a little swing to it -and we were able to hold it consistently.

To get me there, Christy had me warm up by inviting Derby to stretch out and down.  Once I got there, she had me apply “back to front” aids – correcting my position and closing my legs to keep him forward, while continuing to ask Derby to stretch into the bit.  I needed a barrage of constant reminders, which to the innocent bystander may have sounded like harassment but honestly, until habits form, I appreciate the stream of commands from the center of the ring (“Check your posture! Tuck your butt, stretch and forward!”)

The “tuck your butt” suggestion is shorthand that Christy and I have developed that helps me process what she’s asking for so I can respond more quickly.   We’ve found that coaching commands that carry a visual association really help correct myself more quickly.  When I hear ‘butt tuck’ I respond by doing a few things – I elongate my spine, open my hips and check to make sure my seatbones aren’t pointed backward.   I have the bad habit of wanting to schooch back in my saddle, with my posterior almost on the cantle.  The “butt tuck” is also a reminder to me to put myself on my seatbones in the middle of the saddle.  When I hear Christy say that, it elicits a cascade of actions.

The best part of the ride was the fact that I could feel that the contact on the reins was alive and communicative.  That’s such a good feeling – you have the horse’s attention, he’s working over his back and maneuverable, and you can actually feel the inside hind leg in the reins.  Which sounds ridiculous, but for those who have actually felt that ….you know what I’m talking about.

We also picked apart a problem that evidenced itself with real clarity in the show ring a couple weeks ago, when we veered off course a bit during the sort free walk from F to E, winding up left of the target, almost at V.  In reviewing the video, Christy noticed that I had collapsed to the right, effectively pushing the horse to the left.   I started to experience that last night when we changed direction at the walk, and veered away from my intended path.  I tried to re-balance myself, but it wasn’t until Christy walked behind us and diagnosed what was going on that we could really fix what was going on.

I tend to carry my head tilted to the right.  At the walk, Christy had me sit on my seatbones, and lift my shoulders up up up, stretching and straightening my spine.  She then had me tip my head to the left, until it was straight.   Our walk improved.  However, we were still getting hung up at the trot going right.  Christy had us work both directions, watching intently.

“OK, I know what you’re doing,” she said after a few minutes.   I was leading with the wrong shoulder – twisting in the saddle. Essentially, I was almost in position to bend the other direction.    I straightened my posture once again, got balanced on my seatbones, and rolled my shoulders back, paying attention to the right shoulder (the one that wants to creep and roll forward.) Instantly, I could trot a circle without feeling like I had to work for it.

It’s amazing how these seemingly small changes and imbalances can have such a profound effect on the horse. I’m glad that we can take the time to fix these things, rather than trying to kick the hapless horse “through it.”

Trot trot trot

Sporting his new springtime saddle pad.

Tonight’s lesson featured more work on patterns, but with more trotting and fewer walk breaks.  Derby continues to feel fantastic. His rider needs to get stronger!  We’re jumping up to 45 minute rides starting on Saturday, and 45 minute lessons next week.

For fun I picked up a cute new springtime saddle pad today.  How cute is this?

At this point I should admit that I actually bought two cute saddle pads today. They’re both AP pads – I wish they’d make fun dressage pads. Anyway. Here’s the other one.

Starting to polish some edges

Almost square at the halt. Best of all, I was able to maintain contact.

Christy put us to work tonight on some easy patterns, so I could start working on timing and polishing our many rough edges while also getting back into shape. As we walked, she reminded to me to move “hips to hands” rather than bringing my hands back toward my hips.  “Hips to hands” creates following contact.  “Hands to hips” constrains.

Moving into the trot, Derby felt pretty good and we got to work doing a simple pattern consisting of a 20m circle on the long side and then changing rein across the diagonal.  It’s a good exercise and revealed some weaknesses on my part – I need to work on those trot diagonals.

Trotting across the diagonal

My indecision about when to change my diagonal is reflected when Derby starts to wriggle and stray off the diagonal.  I’m trying to change from immediately changing my diagonal to doing so as I go into the corner after my diagonal is complete, so I can concentrate on generating a solid trot across the court.  Old habits die hard.  This will take some work. I also need to work on changing diagonal standing, which Derby appreciates.

He's uphill on the circle. I'm surprised we weren't serenaded by an angelic chorus.

The 20m circles were pretty good. I’ve been working with Derby on responding quickly and correctly on the ground when I ask him to step over. and I cue him by giving him a very gentle poke low on his barrel, where my spur would touch him.  When I’m on a circle and Christy tells me to get that inside hind underneath, I’m able to get a quick response.  The quality of our circles is getting better.

The next pattern Christy assigned was a flat figure 8, bisected by the centerline, and requiring a tighter turn onto/off the centerline at each end. She also had me throw in a halt for good measure.  This exercise really made me use my half halts – in the corners, on the turns, and into the halts.

This exercise revealed that I need to really work on engaging Derby’s hind legs.  Connection is essential to executing the more precise turns and the ensuing halt.  And to have good connection, you need a good trot.  And to get a good trot, you have to have those hind legs in gear.

This pattern was a great exercise and I was pretty happy with how I’m riding, stamina aside.  I do need to keep improving my reaction times, catching Derby before he hollows, bulges a shoulder or gets strung out behind. But that timing and feel will come back with more time in the saddle.

After we were done, we walked outside and strolled around the outdoor arena to cool down. It was a beautiful evening, so our little hack was followed by a quick shower and some grazing.   Derby was, once again, a total star.  It looks like we’re going to go to a schooling show at the beginning of May, and then another toward the end of the month, to get some more show miles on Derbs.  I will be riding Intro at the first and very likely the second – we don’t have a canter at the moment to speak of at the moment.  We’ll start putting that together again next week but strength is an issue at the moment.  Getting out at training still remains a goal for this summer.


Not really sure how this is possible …

Tonight’s ride was a joy.  Derby just feels amazing.  From the first step away from the mounting block I had a really nice, rolling walk.  Derby was also eager to get going, and moved out beautifully at the trot.  We had a nice connection and really good adjustability – my half-halts went through without question, and I could feel Derby bring his back up and step under himself.  He was light and responsive and powerful and forward and, at moments, nicely through.

Christy was really happy with how he was going, too, and while she noticed a few weaknesses in my position (due to being out of shape and losing my riding muscles) so she wanted me to trot til I was pooped, which is what we did. Over all, I’m pretty happy with how decent I feel, despite being out of shape.

I’m not sure how it’s possible that we’re going this well despite all our time off, but I’m not complaining. Next up, another lesson tomorrow.

We still have it

I finally had a lesson tonight after this long hiatus, and it went really well.  Christy was pleased with my posture, and Derby clearly felt good and was moving very nicely.  We’re only going for 30 minute rides this week – Derby has been off for a while and his fitness has suffered.  We’ve got to get his top line back, so that will mean lots of trot work and transitions.

We had a nice, swingy walk to start, and all of my buttons were working, though I did have to work a bit to get his left hind under him.  Christy told me to “Tuck that leg underneath him, do a turn on the forehand if you have to,” and that totally did the trick.  Moving into the trot, I was pleased that I was staying balanced with my leg still.  With some coaching from Christy (half halts – must remember half halts) we got it put together and had some very respectable quality work with some good working trot and with a little bit of more collected work thrown in.

It was one of those nights it would have been very easy to over-do things.  The horse felt great, the evening was warm and breezy, but I kept an eye on the clock.  I know from past experience that the best way to get back into regular work is to focus on building fitness gradually.   I’m doing a series of these 30 minute lessons this week, and next week (hopefully) we’ll jump to 45 minutes, and hopefully start adding the canter back in once he gets a bit stronger.

The consensus from the boss was that we looked pretty much as we had when we left off, which was a real relief to me.  We were doing some nice work before the new year, and I hope we can get back to that point pretty quickly.

When it rains, it pours! (But the sun invariably does come out.)

Derby had a regularly scheduled farrier appointment on Saturday that wound up being pretty eventful.  I got out to the barn early to go look for the three shoes Derby has thrown that I’ve not yet retrieved from his field.  Walking every inch of the turn out, I was able to find one.  Though I was disappointed to not find the others, I was happy to see that about half the field was drying nicely.  That said, the front third is still a morass of gooey, sucking mud.

As I tramped around, the sky darkened, and to my total disgust, fat raindrops started to fall.   The farm owner had seen the storm on the radar, and had kept the horses in. Hopes of the storm breezing past vanished quickly as the rain – and later the hail – fell in earnest.

As the storm raged, Derby stood quietly as I picked mud out of his ears and rubbed his forehead.  Joe cleaned up Derby’s hooves, commenting that they were pretty soft due to being wet for so long, and suggesting that I start painting them with Keratex.   He took a break as the storm really kicked up, causing the horses in their stalls to rear and pace.  Derby merely stuck his head in my armpit and tried to hide.

Things quieted down to the point were Joe felt OK about resuming work on Derby’s back feet.  After about a minute of work, he exclaimed, “Oh.  OH!  EWW.”   Apparently he found an abscess on Derby’s right hind, in the same rear quarter where he had one on January.  Derby hasn’t been lame on that foot (though I out off town for a while, so who knows) and it looks like it may have been draining for a bit.   The good news is that (touching wood) Derby isn’t lame.  I didn’t have time to ride but turned him loose in the indoor to play once Joe was done, and he looked really good.

I did finally have a decent ride today.  We went for 30 minutes (I’m still taking it easy since he’s been off and has definitely lost condition) but about half of that was solid trot work, so I feel like we’ll be able to have some decent lessons with Christy this week.   It will be good to get back on track, and I’m looking forward to a week in which I return to my normal routine.

Everything is a little better

Using leg yield to get better connection at the trot

Today’s ride was really solid, on a number of different levels.  I did a make up lesson with Christy, after temperatures near zero put a stop to lessons on Thursday, and we picked up where we left off – building my strength in my new position and starting to apply the aids.

Derby felt great today, but it took some coaching from Christy to get me to ride him more back to front, with a better connection.  I started the day by going in a nose-poking-out stretchy frame that looked like a baby green hunter.   To establish a better connection, I need to first and foremost get Derby’s back end activated and engaged.   Getting him through and working from behind is a real weakness of mine, and it’s something I must fix.

The good news is that my lower leg was steady throughout the ride.  I feel like I can crack coconuts with my new-found inner thigh strength! Okay,I exaggerate, but in just a week I’ve gained a lot of strength in this area, which is a big help.

So back to the issue du jour, working from behind.  Christy had us do an exercise at the trot which simply entailed talking the quarterlines, and then leg yielding toward the wall.  My first few attempts were totally ineffective.  Then Chrisy had me do a little shoulders-in to get Derbs into the outside rein, and reminded me that quality bend was also required.  Better prepared on our next try, we got a few little steps, and then a few more.  And as we schooled this exercise, the trot started to feel stronger and more powerful.  The quality improved tremendously.

The key take away for me today was pretty straightforward – I need to deliberately ride the movements, and if I don’t get the response I am asking for from the horse, I have to fix it, now.  I’ll be focusing on hind end engagement in the near term.  Life will be easier when Derby and I improve these skills.  Overall, though, I was happy with this ride.  Everything – our contact, our trot quality, my leg, quality of bend, the works – was a bit better today.

After I rode, I watched Christy ride Liam.   I swear, I learn as much watching her on the ground as I do in lessons.   Liam had been off for a few days, and Christy wasn’t happy with the quality of the trot she was getting.  She deliberately worked on isolating and moving his hind legs, and once she established that control, the gait quality significantly better.   Watching her ride, and seeing how she used leg yields and other movements to activate Liam’s hind legs – and then witnessing the subsequent improvement in the gaits – really solidified my lesson in my mind.

Pat your head, rub your tummy

Putting it together - still leg, bending, round horse.

I squeezed in a lesson tonight, because we’re slated to have temperatures so cold tomorrow that riding will be questionable at best, and working the horses would be a bad idea.

As I mounted up, I told Christy that I had done my homework last night, posting laps keeping my feet light in the stirrup, while feeling my inner thighs burn.  While things were easier last night, I admitted to Christy that I had found putting it together – getting the horse round and bending, for example, was tough for me while I was also thinking about carrying myself correctly.  I know the muscles aren’t there yet, but I told her I wanted to start working on adding aids as I develop strength.  Multitasking, I said, was tough.

“Like pat your tummy, rub your head,” said Christy.  “Okay, then! ”

She put us on a circle, asking me to spiral in and out at the trot.  Keeping good rhythm was non-negotiable.  Off we went, and I am happy to report that I’m finding it easier and easier to carry myself correctly in the saddle.   We set up the bend by softening the inside rein, and pushing the horse into the outside rein from my inside leg.  However, I was so fixated on my position that I forgot some other essentials.  Christy reminded me that when bending, to move my outside leg back a bit. Duh! I couldn’t believe I had forgotten that, but that’s what I do when I’m focusing on one thing – it’s often to the exclusion of everything else.  Slowly, she put the pieces back together, stopping every now and then to have me stand a couple beats to realign myself.

With Christy’s help, we were able to produce nice circles with respectable quality, and best of all, I was maintaining my steady lower leg and carrying myself correctly. Definite progress.

I think he's man enough to wear pink!


Managing details

Today Derby and I worked for about 40 minutes, still focusing on trot work, and still sticking to the compacted footing on the rail.   That limited my ability to do much, so I focused on doing quality work, as simple as it was.  This meant good upward transitions that were crisp while keeping the horse on the bit, working in a quality trot, with the horse round and forward, and solid downward transitions, at the letter and maintaining quality. Essentially, I worked on managing the details, which is a crucial aspect of riding a good test.

I also focused on another important detail, which was steadying my lower legs, by keeping the majority of my weight on my thighs – not on the balls of my feet, or on my butt.   Until I keep that lower leg steady, I’m not allowing myself to wear spurs – when my leg is loose, I inadvertently spur the horse, and even though I use short, rounded, gentle spurs, the last thing I want to do is deaden the horse to my aids.  Even more importantly, I need to have control over my lower leg if I’m going to deliver aids with any sort of precision. I started out in two-point, did some stand-stand-post-post to feel my leg steadying, and then paid attention to where my weight was resting while I posted. I was rewarded with an easy, forward trot from Derby, who is very inclined to peter out as soon as I fall out of my balanced seat.

We get to recommence lessons tomorrow night. I’m glad we’re back to work!

We’re back!

I hopped on Derbs for our first ride since late December, and he felt great. I took it easy – he’s had more than two weeks off, which followed a really spotty riding schedule during the holidays.  We worked for about 25 minutes, but had a good ride nonetheless.

As we warmed up walking, I tested whether or not Derby was still responding to my seat.  As we worked some serpentines and shoulders-in, the contact got stronger and steadier, and we had nice walk cadence.

Moving into the trot I stayed on the rail, where the footing is more compacted.  Derby’s heel bulb is still tender, and  deep footing puts pressure on the sore spot.  I wrapped the heel before riding, and he didn’t take a bad step – but still, I was careful.

I woke up my riding muscles with a couple laps in two-point, and then alternated standing two beats, and posting two beats.  That exercise reinforces my balance and helps steady my lower leg.  Because we weren’t doing anything off the rail, I simply did some half halts into a smaller gait, and then asked for more trot down the long sides. I wasn’t wearing spurs or carrying a whip, but Derby complied willingly.

As we finished up, I dropped my stirrups and worked on transitions to halt, half halting and holding my core as we halted to invite Derby to stay on the bit and round.

His back was up and the contact felt really good.  We’ll do a bit more work tomorrow, and will have a lesson on Monday. Yay!