The end of the week

After three great rides, I was hoping to keep the momentum going but Derby was feeling the effects of the stepped up work ( at least that’s what I’ve concluded, and I had overdone things in a workout earlier that day and had almost zero in the tank.  Our work was OK, and we got the canter both ways, but Derby was resistant and registered his discontent with a little buck.   Friday the horses were back outside (the icky weather kept them inside for a couple days earlier in the week) and he had the day off.

We started today with a set of new shoes, but Derby was still a bit uncomfortable for the farrier, and I had to free longe him to loosen up his back end so he’d tolerate getting his hind feet trimmed.

Our ride – my first on my own since the clinic – was pretty good.  I worked on lateral work, especially leg yielding the trot, and did some canter work both ways, and his attitude was much improved compared to Thursday’s as well.  Overall the contact was pretty good, as were the quality of the gaits.

After we rode, I put him on the longe, for the prescribed longe work.  He was swapping leads pretty badly earlier in the week, but today I got good quality work both ways.  I do hope we’re well along the road to recovery and loosening (and strengthening) those big muscles.

One week, redux.

My improved poster lets Derby move more freely

I’m continuing to pick at my position and posture with Christy, but the quality of our rides continues to improve. On Monday, Derby and I unveiled the “new us” to Christy, and she was very happy with the significant progress she saw.  The improvement in forward and energy is evident when compared to my work prior to the show last month (“One Week.)

I still have a ton of work to do, but I’m struck by how my position influences the horse.  Really, it’s probably no surprise.  These animals can feel flies land on their hides.  The shifts in weight and balance that we riders think are subtle probably aren’t, in reality.

Now that I’m better balanced, Derby is moving forward much more freely.  And without a lot of help from me, he’s also moving uphill.  I tell you, once I get my act together, I’m going to have some fun with this sweet, lovely horse.

Christy shot some video so I could see how we’re doing, and one thing really jumped out at me.  While I sit fairly nicely circling left, the same cannot be said going right.  I am reverting back to the tendencies I exhibited earlier on Maddie – weighting one rein more heavily (the left one) and sitting crookedly (and unevenly) in the saddle.  This video doesn’t lie.  You can see me start to lean forward and close my hip when I change directions.

This unfortunate shot sums up what we started to tackle in tonight’s lesson, in which we worked on overall balance and took aim specifically on correcting my crookedness.  I have my homework for the weekend, and I hope to report good progress within a few days.

I'm starting to collapse.

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.

Losgelassenheit

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!

One week

Derby and I have been working really hard recently, and we stepped it up this week.  The quality of the work we’re doing has improved almost exponentially.  We have a long way to go, but progress is a great motivator.  I feel like we’re really starting to generate some quality movements, and I’m finally, finally starting to ride.  I’m not saying that we’re there.  Not at all.  But we’re better!

Six days ago:

Last night:

And a special thanks to Christy, who’s been tireless this week!

Homework

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!

Whup@ss

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.

*ouch*

The core of the problem

Our first lesson in more than a month

As you’ve probably surmised due to the infrequent blog posts, the last few weeks haven’t been too exciting.  I’ve been working hard on rebuilding my riding muscles and regaining my seat, and at the same time, I’ve been gradually stepping up the work Derby is doing.   I’m now doing 30-40 minute rides, with about 10-15 minutes of trotting.   For the time being, building our fitness is my main priority.

Now that we’re doing some decent work and are able to sustain our efforts for a little while I decided that it was time to re-start lessons with Christy.  We are thinking of going out to a schooling show mid-August just to get Derby out and about.  We won’t be ready for anything, really, and will probably do a walk-trot test.  But I don’t want to embarrass myself, and I’ve been worried about the quality of our walk.

Derby would prefer to shuffle slowly, and I’ve been working on improving his tempo and energy.  He’s doing much better lately but we lose that energy and rhythm, I’ve noticed, when we circle or serpentine.

As we talked, I sat easily, with loopy reins, and Derby walked – a nice, swingy walk with good energy.  Christy had me gather the reins, and immediately Derby’s stride shortened.  From there, Christy had me keep my legs off Derby, instead, opening up my hip angle, sitting up straight and inviting a bigger stride.  It worked.  Derby went from a stodgy little walk to a nice swingy one.

A nice walk

Christy’s eagle eye had noticed something.  When I gathered the reins up, I leaned forward – very slightly – but it was enough to close my hip angle, causing Derby to shorten his stride.    We experimented with this a little bit, and when I mentioned the difficulties I had maintaining tempo when asking for bend on circle or serpentine, she watched carefully as I asked Derby to bend with my inside leg.

Sure enough, she spotted it.  Whatever I was doing with my inner leg was causing me to close my hip angle.   We figured it out – I was reverting to old habit of curling my heel up when applying my leg.

I've closed my hip and Derby has shortened his stride.

The difference in stills from the video Christy snapped is stark. Derby’s head has popped up and his back is hollow.

From there Christy had us move to trotting, reminding me to post hips to hands, keeping my hip angle open, and engaging my core muscles.    When I followed her instructions, Derby responded immediately, rounding and relaxing, chewing the bit.

But the second I stopped riding,  Derby hollowed and his head came up . “Core!” Christy called in my direction.  I re-engaged my core and opened my hips and the gait quality improved.   Christy reminded me that Derby is very much a “seat horse” – he’s sensitive to the slightest movement of the rider  This is both a blessing and a curse, she told me.  Once I get control of my body and my aids, I’ll be able to influence Derby very subtly.  It’s going to take some work to get there, though!

Related reading: http://www.balancedrider.com/blog/2011/07/11070601.htm

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!

Multi-tasking

I was back in the saddle today, after a four day hiatus due to a business trip and subzero weather.  As I noted in my last post, I need to re-establish forward, and get Mads back in front of my leg.  At the same time, I need to work on fixing the crookedness that is causing me to hang on that left rein.

Except, maybe I shouldn’t work on the two at the same time.  Today’s ride was a bit ugly, because what I got was some nice forward work — and ugly resistance, as Mads braced her neck and popped her right shoulder out.   I did a couple laps to the left,  softening and releasing my left rein, and she softened nicely into my outside rein.  Which I made a point of holding.

But when we went back to doing circles and figure-8s, I had trouble with the steering (!) and, over all, she was resistant to the left. However, the quality of our work improved when we did serpentines.  So, if I get to ride tomorrow (which is iffy) I’m thinking that more work in serpentines would be good – at least as we warm up.  And, I think it’s time to put the spurs back on, now that my leg position is better.  I need to add emphasis to my leg aids.  However, I need to keep insisting upon responsiveness too.  The last thing I want is a horse that is dead to the leg.

The good news is that Mads was nicely forward, though we still don’t have the quality trot we were generating before the holidays.

This nice trot is still eluding us, but we're working toward it.

In addition to the hanging issues, and the forward issues, I’m dumping Maddie onto her forehand.  So, half-halts need to be a bigger part of my repertoire.  I’m good about half-halting as we head into a corner, or asking her for a shorter, “smaller” gait on the short side, but I am not using them enough at other times, to engage her back end and invite her to lift her shoulders, producing the pretty, uphill gait pictured above.

So I need to get better at multi-tasking in the saddle.  This is always hard for me when I’m not fully proficient with a skill. Feeling what’s going on underneath me, and responding in the moment — and appropriately — is hard.  But that’s dressage.