Walk Perfectly.

Even though Emily Wagner has turned her head to talk to her coach, Wake Up is still round, on the bit and pushing powerfully from behind. This is an enviable walk.

Man plans, God laughs, and horses are in cahoots.  After our breakthrough rides last week, it appears that Derby might be re-abscessing in his left hind.  He’s sound walking but he’s really protecting that foot when trotting.  I’ve recommenced soaking and wrapping.   This hiccup is a real disappointment, but things happen for a reason. The horse needs to keep moving.  So we’re walking.

This is a perfect opportunity for me to practice something I heard Robert Dover say over and over and over again in the clinic.  “Walk perfectly,” he insisted, adding, “Everything is related back to walking well. You have to get the basics of being correct in the bridle.  You have to be on the aids at the walk in order to be on the aids everywhere else.”

Christy often asks me “Is this the walk that has a canter in it?” and often my answer is no.  Most of the time, frankly, I phone in walking.  And that’s a bad habit.  I’m letting the horse relax fully when walking, often dropping the reins.

Dover took the idea of the-walk-that-has-a-canter-in-it further, describing collected walk as being a state in which anything – any gait, any movement – is possible.  He spoke frequently about how collection is additive – you add energy, rather than taking it away.   While collection is absolutely months and months away for Derby and me, building energy isn’t.  Listening to Robert, I became more fully aware of how important creating that energy is.  Without forward energy, you don’t have contact, engagement and roundness.  Without forward energy, you don’t have dressage. Period.

So I decided to spend this time when we’re in walk only mode working on walking perfectly.

As I warmed up last night, I made a point (as I always do) to find my seatbones, and balance myself from there.  I know I”m doing it right when Derby abandons his shuffle and strides out properly. After I found that moment, I next asked him to stretch into a free walk.  It didn’t happen, due to the fact that I had no real contact.  I regrouped, balancing myself, picking up contact, encouraging the horse to stay forward, and then getting a little stretch.  Just a little. 

Hmmm.

I decided to try an exercise Christy had me do with Maddie that helped me get the mare onto the bit.  Walking, I flexed Derby left, and then right, from my seat, holding the reins quietly.  This was better but still not great.

Hmmm.

While I thought I stood up in my stirrups, practicing balancing myself standing straight up.  Derby plodded on, I held myself in balance standing with loop in the rein, and thought and thought.

As we walked around the arena, I could feel Derby’s walk changing.  His back started to swing, he was pushing from his back end, and I could feel his stride really lengthening.  This was a niiice walk.  Really nice.

Gently, breathlessly, I sat back into the saddle.  Derby’s stride immediately shortened, losing energy.  Okay, I had an idea what was causing this – my hip angle.  I had worked on this before.  Taking my legs off the horse, I felt my seatbones. Keeping my legs off the horse, I followed his motion, and the stride started to lengthen.  All right.  Progress. I picked up the reins, closed my legs …. and lost the energy again.

Dang. I decided to seek professional help.  After I dismounted, I told Christy that I wanted lessons after all, and that we were going to work on the walk.  

So tonight we did just that.  I told Christy all about last night.  She reminded me of one key thing I had forgotten to do – to emphasize keeping my hip angle open while in the saddle.  How to achieve this?  We repeated an exercise she had me do previously – after finding my seatbones, she has me lengthen from the hip, being sure to unclench my knees, and with my calves softly against the horse.  This is Christy’s way of getting me – sore knees, tight hips, weak ankles and toes that want to point straight out to the sides – to relax and soften my legs so they can drape around the horse.  

From there, she reminded me to open my hip angle, by making a point of sitting tall, lifting my chest.  It felt like I was leaning way, way too far back.  But no, despite the exaggerated feel, Christy assured me I was sitting straight.

The change underneath me was instant and significant.  With my hip angles open, Derby strode forward nicely.   This was progress.  Christy had me pick up contact and close my legs, encouraging him to go even more forward.  He trotted off (though his back was up and it felt pretty nice!) but that wasn’t the result we we intended.  Christy had spotted the problem, however.  In that moment, I hunched my shoulders forward (I’m told) which totally weakened my position, causing me to lean my body forward.  We tried it again, this time with emphasis on holding the reins (like side reins, Christy suggested) and keeping my shoulders still and back.

At that point, I had an ah-ha moment.  Derby was striding forward and pulling strongly into the contact.  This is what I had been seeking!  This was the nice, connected walk I had admired in others.  This was the sort of walk that had a canter in it.  Or a halt.  Or, for that matter, anything.

I worked on developing that feel and memory during my lesson.  I lost the nice walk, and regained it, over and over.  Tomorrow night I hope we’ll add some lateral work.  We made some real progress tonight.

Making lemonade

The thermometer was hoovering near zero late this afternoon when I shut my laptop down, pushed back from the desk, and started to consider my trip to the barn.  The second day of extremely frigid temperatures in a row, I knew that the horses stayed in today, and I suspected that the footing in the arena would be frozen.   So I dug out my warmest long-johns – the thick, waffle-weave kind – and over them put a pair of too-big jeans so I’d be comfy.  I added more layers – a turtleneck and a thick fleece jacket.  I stuck toe-warmers in my boots, swaddled my head in a fleece headband, wool stocking cap and a long scarf, and dove into my coat.   Grunting, I struggled to put on my boots, as all the layers were rendering me close to immobile.  I grabbed my keys and waddled out to my car.

Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to see the barn lights glowing – normally, I’m the only lunatic that goes out on sub-zero nights.  However, I was in good company tonight – Liz, a fellow Packer fan and OTTB owner, was visiting Cloud.  Turns out the arena footing wasn’t too bad, and she was riding.

Hmm. What the heck, I decided, pulling a sleepy Maddie out of her stall.  Hanging out inside makes her mellow, if you can believe that.  She dozed while I scurried around, picking her hooves, surveying the filthy, frozen mess she made of her tail (I still don’t know what she got into, and, frankly, I don’t want to know) and tacking her up.  I tucked her quarter sheet around her fanny, and plopped my freezing cold helmet on my head.  Happily, I had warmed up sufficiently and removed my coat – one less layer was a good thing at this point.

Mounting was interesting.  In addition to feeling like a mummy, my too-big jeans kept slipping down around my hips, resulting in a poor (and monstrously unflattering) imitation of the urban-youth-pants-down-around-the-knees look. I hiked up my pants, clambered up the mounting block, and finally when the mare (and the pants) stayed put, I got on.

The arena footing was definitely iffy in areas, so as I let the mare snort and stretch, I went through my options.  I still wanted a to have a productive ride.  But, given the footing, the freezing air and my woeful attire, it wasn’t a good night to work hard, and focus on moving the mare forward.   Still contemplating my options, I thought about a recent blog post Christy did, telling about a ride on Liam during which she worked exclusively at the walk.

I decided that responsiveness would be the rule of the day.  As we warmed up, I started asking for bend from my seat, and threw in a lot of random halt transitions.  We practiced (semi-successfully) staying round in the halt, and the upward and downward transitions. As we walked, I also tried to keep Maddie really busy.  She has the unfortunate habit of sticking her tongue out when we walk.  I’ve found that the best remedy is to keep her focused and working.  I also worked on left bend, being sure to give my left rein.  This went pretty well, though there were some incidents of bracing and mare foolishness.  However, we got through it, and even got some nice circles and shoulder in – we had some moments of good contact and stretch, which were encouraging.

I trotted Mads a bit, not asking for much from her but insisting on responsive, right now transitions, and also asking her to stay round and stretching.  We moved around as much as we could, but there were some patches in the middle of the ring that were pretty solid, and after one pass, Mads (who is barefoot) made it clear that those patches didn’t feel good, so I tried to avoid them for the rest of the ride.

To mix things up a bit, and to keep working on responsiveness, we practiced a variety of transitions – trot/halt, halt/walk/halt, halt/trot/halt etc. Mads was fairly well attuned to me and again, we had some nice moments, but she was also distracted by some barking dogs and a horse kicking the walls in the back aisle, adjacent to the arena.  I got after her but not to the degree I would have had we really been working, and I was less happy with how I handled that part of the ride.

All in all, riding tonight was a pleasant surprise.  I’m glad I did, because even though it was a pretty gentle ride, it was more exercise for the cooped-up mare.  And tomorrow, well, let’s just say the prospects are grim. It’s going to be crazy cold tonight, and I’m certain that footing is going to freeze.

The mare is waiting, and watching.

Back in the barn, I groomed Mads, put her heavyweight back on, and stuck her in her stall.  She hovered near the door, ignoring her hay and telegraphing what can only be described as pathos with her tragic expression. What was her problem? Ah, well, you see, upon arrival at the barn, I had whipped up a batch of her nightly mare mush, a glorious concoction of beet pulp shreds and alfalfa cubes, soaked in hot water until soft, fluffy and steamy, and then laced with molasses.  Mads needs to gain a little more weight, and in extremely cold weather like this, getting some extra hydration into the horse’s system is a bonus.  That’s all well and good, but then I went and set the steaming bowl of mush on my trunk to cool.  Right outside Maddie’s stall.

So close, and yet, so far away.

She stared disconsolately at the mush, inhaling the delicious fumes.  I finally relented and (after testing the temperature) gave the poor starving mare her mush.

It is soooo good. At least she seems to think so.

Satisfied, I headed home.  I was feeling  pretty good until my car told me it was -12 degrees outside. Yikes!