Two light bulbs

Learning to sit, effectively

My holiday hiatus over, I was looking forward to getting back out to the barn last night for my lesson.  However, though the mind was willing, the body wasn’t.  One of my knees was killing me and the motion of posting was painful.  So Christy reshuffled her deck, and announced that we’d do more warm up work in two point, and then work on sitting trot.

We’re using two point to build my leg strength, so I can start carrying my weight more correctly, instead of relying solely on my stirrups.  As I went around, I lightened my feet in the stirrups, taking more weight on my upper thighs. Then Christy upped the ante, asking me to take some contact and make the horse round. While in two-point.

Now, this took some doing for me. I’ve not done much in terms of influencing the horse while working in two-point.

“Think side reins,” said Christy.  I closed my fingers, and steadied my hands.  Derby started to pull into the contact, and rounded.

“Good. Now send him forward,” said Christy.  Still in two-point, I squeezed my knees.  Nothing.  Determined not to cheat, I squeezed my knees again.

“This trot’s getting worse, not better!” Christy observed.  “Send him forward!”  After another minute of pop-eyed knee-squeezing, I asked Christy exactly how one sends a horse forward when in two-point.

“You can use your legs and your core while you’re in two point,” she said. When she said that, the first light bulb clicked on. I realized that I hadn’t been using my lower leg at all – and the go button is best activated with the calves.   I tightened my core, which magically connected my body to my legs (um. duh.) and eased my knees, letting my calves drape around the horse a bit more, despite maintaining the two point position.  The horse rounded, and when I closed my calves, he went forward.

“There you go!” Christy approved.  So that was my first light bulb moment. From then on, I was able to ride the horse more forwardly, while maintaining some roundness, in a two point.  It was definitely a first.

From there, we took a walk break.  Christy had me focus on feeling the motion with my seat, paying attention to which foot was falling where.  Then she had me swing my hips, telling me to swing the horse up into a trot, and then continue following the motion with my seat.

After a few rough starts, Christy noted that I was starting to curl forward, and was tensing up in an effort to stay light on the horse’s back.  The result was a tooth-rattling ride that wasn’t any fun for the horse, either.

“Lean back, and point your seat bones towards the front of the saddle, ” she told me.  My next try was much more productive.  I was able to feel a few moments where the sitting trot felt really good and connected.  Best of all, the horse was pretty happy throughout.  Derby was staying fairly round – not popping his head up and going hollow.  I fed him some extra rein, as my hands were still bouncing around a bit, and I wanted to focus on staying with the motion.  Eventually, though, I was actually able to take and hold some contact while sitting, and Derby stretched into the contact, holding it nicely.  I was stunned. While I wasn’t really moving Derby out in any semblance of a working trot, nonetheless, this was the first time I’ve ever maintained any semblance of contact and roundness while sitting the trot.   One night, and two light bulb moments! Can’t wait to get out to the barn tonight!

Well, that didn’t go as planned.

After working so hard yesterday, I was eager for my lesson today, and I arrived at the barn early to deal with the very muddy horse I assumed I would find.  Derby, however, was pretty much pristine, despite the soupy conditions out in the paddocks.  He had been alone today, as his pasture mate Remy had to have a shoe replaced, and evidently he didn’t move around much.  There were no spatters on his tummy, he was just dirty from the fetlocks down.

As pleased as I was to not be confronted by a horse that was liberally coated with goo, in retrospect, it would have been better if he moved around a bit more today.  Once we got going – barely going – in our lesson, it was evident that something was wrong. I hopped off, and fetched a longe line.   As I came back into the arena, Christy handed me the reins and palpated Derby’s rump.  Gentle pressure caused him to really flinch.  Derbs was afflicted with a very sore patootie.

I was pretty surprised by this.  Yes, we worked hard yesterday.  But I wasn’t doing a lot of transitions, and we are so not anywhere close to doing anything collected.   However, Christy reminded me that we have upped the ante, and both Derby and I are doing a lot more these days.

On the longe Derby loosened up, and promptly surprised us both by flashing some really fancy trot – by far the nicest we’ve seen from this horse.   As I was standing there slackjawed, Christy said, “Well, your horse definitely isn’t broken!”

I got back on, and Christy decided to give the horse a bit of a break, and to torture me instead.  I had told her that Iwas having problems keeping my lower leg still – I’m still carrying too much weight on my stirrups, and as a result, my lower leg moves around a lot when I post.   On Sunday when I encountered this, I alternated posting  with standing a couple beats, then posting a couple, then standing …. doing so helps me “feel” the correct spot for my leg.  However, since I was squarely in Christy’s cross hairs, and because this is a problem caused by lack of strength on my part, Christy had  me get into two point, keeping my weight on my inner thighs. My test for whether or not I’m doing this correctly is letting my stirrups “rattle” on the bottom of my boot – they can’t rattle and move around if I’m really leaning on them.  I did a lap of that before calling uncle.  Christy then had me post from a half-seat, keeping my legs engaged and butt out of the saddle.    This is my homework for the next few days.  We’re going to move to posting without stirrups in short order.  It’s not fun but I’m going to bear down and get it done.

We did have an interesting moment right at the beginning of the ride, as I was just starting to warm up.   Christy wasn’t happy with what she saw, and had me drop my stirrups and stretch.  Fortuitously, she grabbed :51 of video which illustrated something pretty important about the problems I’m having.  Here it is:

At the beginning of the video, watch me carefully.  Do you see my hips moving?  No. You don’t.  Instead, I’m moving my shoulders.  The horse’s movement is not being absorbed by my seat. It’s “coming out” my shoulders.  My body is essentially acting like a lever.  Now, look at Derby’s walk.  It’s tending toward lateral. (Nice.) His back isn’t swinging.  Other than his cute lime green saddle pad and clean shiny self, there’s not a lot to like.

At about the :28 mark, I start to make the adjustments Christy suggests.  I still my shoulders, and start to let my hips really follow the horse’s movement.  Almost instantly, you can see Derbs take a larger stride with his hind legs.  His back comes up a bit, and he develops a nice, 4-beat cadence.     I think Christy caught kind of a profound moment in this little clip, and I’m glad she did.  That little change made a big difference for the horse!

So, onward and upward.  Tomorrow we’ll do some nice stretchy work, and I will spend some quality time in two-point.

The new saddle arrives!

The new saddle - an Albion K2 Genesis

I believe the saddle fit woes that kept us grounded are finally over – the new Albion K2 Genesis that arrived last week is working well for both Derby and me – so far.

From my perspective, the saddle is extraordinarily comfortable and well balanced – it accommodates my long femur and my decided preference for a closer contact feel and a narrow twist. Derby seems to like it too – he’s relaxed and isn’t showing any resistance.  His back soreness is almost gone.

The saddle’s arrival coincided with a week of brutally high temperatures, with heat indices of well over 100 for the week.  While it wasn’t pleasant, it didn’t impact my riding.  I was planning on doing light rides with Derby at the outset, just 20 minutes or so, mostly walking – and that’s what we did.   We stepped it up to 30 minutes with more trotting yesterday.  We’re not working on much at all at the moment – getting the horse back into condition to support real work is job one.  I’m starting to ask for some stretching and transitions, and am doing so incrementally.

In other news, some bad habits are back in force – namely, the toes-out, knees-out position I fought to overcome on Maddie last winter.  Because I’m still not working too hard with Derby, I’m picking up rides on other horses so I can sustain my own efforts longer.  Lots of two-point work is ahead of me.  And I have to work on stretching my hip flexors – so I can roll my whole leg inward.  Ugh.  Back to square one!

Break it down

A few posts ago, as I bade Mads farewell, I mused out loud about how doors open when others close.  At that moment, my time with Maddie was ending, and I wasn’t seeing very many other doors to walk through. Happily, a new and unexpected door has swung open.  With no horse, and no real agenda at the moment, we’re using this time to make me a more well rounded rider, adding new skills to my toolbox and instilling confidence as I build competence.

Through the kindness of friends (and their busy schedules at work) I’ve been given the golden opportunity to ride a variety of horses.  I’ve handed myself over to Christy, and we’re rebuilding my seat, borrowing some theory and practice from the hunter barns in Christy’s past, where riders rode all manner of horses – fresh off the track OTTBs, sour and crafty schoolies, hotrods and dead heads.  This is common practice – and it’s good practice.  You ride what you have, and you ride over poles, grids and courses.    The riders are all adept at riding in a balanced half seats, and rely on their balance – not the tack – to stay aboard when things get hairy.

Christy and I talked about this in the aisle a few days ago.   She had me stand with my legs apart and knees bent, with my back flat, hips behind me and shoulders forward – in “two point”.   Then, from there, she had me move my upper body around, to see how far I really had to move before I started to throw myself off balance.  It turns out I have quite a large range of motion when crouching in two-point in the aisle.

Then, she had me straighten up, adopting the posture of a dressage rider – knees slightly bent, standing erect.  She challenged me again to move my top half around, to the point were I started to become unbalanced.  My range of comfortable motion was much less.  When you’re upright, your body acts as a lever.  The only way you can hope to save yourself and rebalance is maximally engage your core muscles, and they better be super strong if this is going to save you from going ker-splat.

This was an illuminating little exercise.  We moved it to the saddle over the weekend, as I described yesterday.  Tonight, I took a lesson on Oliver, and we went another couple steps. I rode with my stirrups shorter, which really does feel like hell, and in an illuminating exercise, Christy had me work on bending and steering him with my legs, while standing.

It worked surprisingly well!  First and foremost, standing forces you to keep you leg under you.  I need to build muscle memory and break my bad habit of tucking my leg back and curling my heel up when I want to put leg on the horse.  I have to keep that leg at. the. girth. while I apply leg.  And Oliver really responded to what had to be a much clearer and more distinct aid.  He surprised me by neatly stepping under himself and giving nicely as I asked him to bend.    We were starting out going to the right, the direction in which I find Oliver to be resistant to correct bending – he wants to lean inward and I usually have to work hard to move him out when going that direction.  But during this exercise, I got the nicest bend and response from Oliver I’ve had to date.  I was thrilled!

We picked up the trot, and here’s where things always get interesting with Oliver.  He’s a newbie to dressage and hasn’t established a nice rhythm yet.  He goes fast, he goes slow, he strides out, he almost drops to a walk, he hops forward again.  His speed setting is locked on “wildly variable.”  I posted, but kept out of the saddle, going no further than a half-seat on the downward beat.  The variable speeds of Oliver’s trot were are a real challenge to stay with, but it’s great practice for me.  I hopped up into two point, trying to keep my weight out of the stirrups.  Oliver sped up. Oliver slowed down.  I adjusted and didn’t fall off.

When I had about had it, I sat on a down beat, sat up straight, and asked Oliver to walk, principally from my seat.  He’s getting better at listening to this, and the response came quickly.

Christy pointed out that because I had my legs correctly under me when I posted, when I sat, I was able to sit deep and be effective.  She made the link for me between that balanced seat I had at that moment, and the balanced seat that saw me safely through spooks and equine naughtiness.  The foundation of this important tool is correct leg position.  This was a great illustration of this principle.

We worked in the trot in both directions.  In addition to staying with the uneven rhythm, I also worked on gently bending Oliver and steering correctly from my outside rein.  I swear, if there’s one thing I hope I can help contribute to Oliver’s education, it’s better steering!  But he actually did really well tonight, and he’s a quick study. I got a couple little leg-yield steps here and there – he was stepping out from my leg correctly and giving me some nice bending.  We then did some figure 8’s and by the end, I was able to ask nicely and receive a reasonable response from the horse.   I was very proud of Oliver – he’s a smart one and learns quickly.

This was an illuminating lesson, because I was able to practice what Christy and I discussed in the aisle this weekend, as we crouched in a semblance of two-point and discussed balance, velocity and physics.  Set’s face it.  The tackiest leather, the stickiest full seats, the biggest blocks – all are of little use when hell really breaks loose.  Your ability to stay balanced is what will save your bacon.

Case in point: Seconds before I rode that crazy thunder-induced bolting spook a few weeks ago, I quite literally said to myself “green horse, weight your heels,” and had just stretched down into my stirrups when he spooked.  It must have been Divine intervention, because know the fact that I started from a balanced seat contributed mightily to my success in riding that spook long enough to dictate my dismount.

So the next month or two will be interesting.  It’s going to be a real challenge for me but I’m excited about becoming more well-rounded and an overall better rider.   There is one problem, though.  And it’s Christy. I don’t like the way she looks at me when she’s thinking – it’s how a lion sizes up a baby gazelle – and I can see her wheels turning.  Like tonight, when I was watching Atlanta’s owner Cathy finishing a fun ride by cooling out bareback.   Atlanta, a nice round Hano, doesn’t have razor withers or a protruding spine.  One could imagine riding her bareback with a degree of comfort.  I said as much out loud, within Christy’s ear shot.  Her eyes narrowed as she thought.  She looked at me.  She looked at Cathy and Atlanta.  She looked back at me.

I am so dead.