Monday, May 14, 2018

Tonight I went out and put in my first "non-lesson" ride since the horses returned to their regular summer barn. It was warm and sunny, and I rode late enough in the evening that I missed the heat of the day, so it was *almost* a comfortable ride....... except for the flies that were really into swarming right in my, and the horse's, face. About 30 seconds into the ride, one flew up my nose and has yet to come out again.

I was on my usual big easygoing warmblood lesson horse, the one I rode all winter. She was a bit bothered by the flies, and a bit tired from an earlier lesson in the day, but she was a good sport about everything, and the flies really dropped off once we got moving. She was a little on the pokey side tonight, but did everything I asked and didn't fall out of her gaits at all. I used to lose her canter constantly -- and I mean CONSTANTLY -- so she and I have both come a long way with that. I'm also no longer afraid to tap her back up with the whip if I need to, which helps, though in hindsight I don't think I had to touch her with it at all tonight.

To clarify, when I say I was previously "afraid" to use my whip to reinforce my leg, what I mean was, I used to assume that the error was always mine as a rider, and would err on the side of not using the whip as I didn't want to tap the horse for my own shortcomings. Now, I'm much more confident about timing with it when it IS needed, though I'm sparing with it still and only use it enough to get the job done.

I worked on sitting trot quite a bit tonight, and it was really clicking. I had a bit of bounce at first as I shifted my pelvic angle around trying to find that sweet spot, but once I was there everything was nice and loosey goosey and my bum didn't leave the saddle at all. I was even able to maintain it at a not-painfully-slow trot, so that was cool! All that practice, thumping around over the winter (sorry, horse!) is finally paying off. I don't feel like I have to FIERCELY CONCENTRATE to keep it all together anymore. It's coming to me a lot more naturally, though I still have off days, and I do have to make frequent adjustments.

The canter work was decent. She was a bit stiff to one side, which isn't unusual for her, especially when she's tired, but unfortunately we did end up in a bit of a "stiffness loop," as feeling the stiffness in her was making me tense up a bit as the movement felt a bit different. We weren't as good at staying properly on the track in that direction, but I focused more on the movement itself than on precision steering. My right leg kept wanting to creep forward on me, which was an old problem I had when I was just starting back into cantering again. Every now and then it pops up again. Don't know why, and fighting it doesn't really help either, but I've learned to ride through it and just shrug it off as a "thing."

However, that aside, we did do some pretty nice 15 and 10 metre circles at both canter and trot! I did a 15m circle canter figure 8 with a flying change, twice in each direction, and she stayed balanced through it, the circles stayed pretty round, and she gave me the lead change when I asked for it instead of just when she felt like it!

We wound things down with more sitting trot, and did some serpentines. By now I was really warmed up and so was she, so she was easier to sit to and it felt great.

I also worked on using mostly my seat muscles to collect her trot, which was a fun exercise. I'm still not sure how to break down exactly *how* my body is telling her to collect but stay trotting, but whatever it is, it seems to be working. A combination of a very slight blocking with the seat, and a shortening and repeated slight half-halts with the hands, while keeping my leg on to keep the "gas pedal" on and keep her in the gait. Conversely, to extend, I open my hips and knees, let my seat completely go with the flow, add leg and have a giving hand.

It's so very cool to ride such an adjustable horse, and one who's such a good sport. She's chill enough to carry total beginners and very small children, but has the training to keep allowing someone to "unlock" different aids with her. As my riding has progressed, I've gotten more and more out of her that was there this whole time. I just didn't know how to access it!

After all that, I walked her back to the barn, and my coach said "Oh, did you give up because of the bugs?" Haha. All that and I guess I had been riding for MAYBE 25 minutes? I guess I packed a lot in, because it FELT like a long ride!

In summary: my body was doing some funky canter stuff, but it still got the job done, and my sitting trot was some of the best I've ever ridden on this horse! Even though it wasn't as "OMG YES" as Friday's ride was (I still haven't recapped that one -- oops!!) it was really satisfying, and I've come such a very long way!!!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Man, what a ride!

I just had a super stressful week, with work eating up just about every waking minute of my life. I kept trying to get out to ride, but invariably the work day, and/or other obligations, and in one instance weather... would conspire to get in the way. 

I wasn't sure how tonight's lesson would go, as I hadn't ridden since last Saturday, and have abruptly gone from riding four days a week for most of March and April, to abruptly cutting back to once or twice. BUT! It was so good!

My body usually fights me after a tense week, but tonight I think I was so pumped to FINALLY get to ride, it decided to really cooperate. I was super limber, strong when needed, felt balanced and my seat just felt so "on" that it was like I was part of the saddle.

It's late here now, and I'm sitting on my tired butt eating a bunch of Haagen Dazs brownies and cookie dough ice cream straight from the container while my partner is dead asleep in the other room. I really do want to recap the ride properly though, so I think I'll revisit that tomorrow at some point.

I will say briefly though that I did sit a spook and totally just went with it, physically and mentally. That's actually HUGE for me, because I tend to be a bit of a nervous rider. But no, she spooked at a LEAF. On the GROUND. It wasn't even moving. And it was so bizarre from this unflappable horse, that the instructor and myself just laughed at her about it and we carried on. I was, amazingly for me, in no way traumatized by it.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

It's easy to be humble...

...when you've spent the entire winter riding one horse consistently (aside from those two Paso rides) and then try a new one of a completely different size and shape, and find yourself mysteriously and completely losing one of your stirrups in canter.

Specifically the left lead canter, and the left stirrup. Point in my favour, though: I was able to carry on quite well without it, and actually got it BACK once!

Anyhow, getting ahead of myself. So. This summer, there are two lesson horses at my barn that need a bit of post-lease rehab from having another barn's beginners bombing around on them and letting them move like strung out giraffes. Both have picked up some bad small habits, none of them dangerous, but that need to get sorted out. One is recovering from a minor injury and can only have very short, light rides right now. The other is fine but needs to start carrying herself better under saddle. So, tonight I rode that one.

I normally ride a big warmblood with a wide barrel, long back, long neck, low head carriage, and who is a pretty level ride. Tonight's horse was a small, narrow, springy, short-necked short-backed Pintarabian. My usual horse rides like a train, pushing straight and smooth and powerfully forward. The little horse tonight was like riding a little deer. Still nice but SO different! Which is actually GREAT because I worry that riding only the same horse all the time is going to make me a bit complacent and start overestimating my abilities. Nothing is more humbling as a rider than trying a different horse and suddenly feeling completely at sea!

However, I didn't feel COMPLETELY at sea by any means, so that was a good sign. I found trying to gauge how she was moving, and how quickly, was quite difficult because I had no point of reference from any previous lessons on her for what "her" working trot, canter, etc are supposed to feel like. So I listened to my coach (I do that, yes I do!) and adjusted accordingly.

She did a lot of wiggling her head around, and tossing it, and the longer I rode the more dramatic her head tossing became. (This was apparently an evasion tactic with the beginners.) I was having a bit of trouble working with it at first, but developed two strategies that helped. One was to take up the random slack in the reins by widening my hands instead of constantly readjusting my rein length, which was getting a bit ridiculous. The other was, as her head tossing got more dramatic, to stop really thinking about her head at all and just ride her from her back end forward, if that makes sense. That was actually helpful on several levels because it helped make my seat feel immediately stronger and more independent, and it made me semi-tune-out the fussing happening in front of me and think of the bigger picture.

My leg was really ON tonight, and even though I was riding in a different saddle than I'm used to, as well, I felt very secure. I was in a jumping saddle instead of a dressage saddle, so did have to ride shorter to be effective (and in hindsight should probably have ridden even shorter. Maybe.). I saw some photos after the ride, and was pretty shocked to see how DEEP my heels were. But that wasn't all of it. My whole leg felt engaged and like it was working to support me. My hips weren't as open as they are in the dressage saddle, but that's to be expected. I really did feel all my muscles working together to support me and to get the job done.

What needs improvement: my right leg seemed to be moving a lot to try to be effective, whereas my left leg was just kind of quietly there, but still on and strong. My feet wanted to come forward on me, especially in canter! I think that's maybe why I was losing that left stirrup on the left lead, but I'm not exactly sure. My coach said that something about that horse's stride does tend to want to push your leg forward so it wasn't just me. She also told me that my heels weren't coming up and I didn't seem to be shortening my leg on that side, so actually losing the stirrup was pretty bizarre. I lost it three times that direction, haha! But my seat was ON tonight and I just kept riding without it. And I actually got it BACK once! Woohoo! But immediately started to lose it again... There was a LOT of sand and grit on my boot soles tonight, so that might have been part of the problem, but I think it was probably 90% something I was doing (or not doing).

I was also a little bit tippy side to side at moments. Not in a major way, to where I lost my balance, but it snuck up on me! I think that came from not being used to a narrow horse. My legs and hips and body were a bit confused. Less bearing surface, haha.

All in all, though, a good ride. Very cool to have a new and so very DIFFERENT horse to ride regularly! I might actually start to get well rounded. :O

A great takeaway from tonight: I'm starting to feel like my seat is getting strong enough that if a horse I was on WERE to do something a bit wacky or act up a little, I could keep my seat and just ride it out. Not that I'm seeking out scenarios to test that any time soon. ;) Still, it's a great feeling!

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Yesterday I had my first ride of the season back at the "home" barn, in the outdoor arena.

Now, one strange effect of riding in the indoor arena all winter, in the DEAD QUIET, was that every single noise stood out, and the horses were jumpy at even tiny changes. The horse I leased over the winter is normally pretty bombproof, but even she had some small spooks at sudden noises in the extremely still arena. My last outdoor ride on her had been on a VERY windy day, and it had been the only time I really thought I was going to fall off of her, in two and a half years of riding her, as she was spooking and sort "pinging" randomly around the arena. Very out of character, and at one moment I had felt that sort of swell of tension in her body and had that "Oh crap here we go" feeling that a shy and bolt was going to happen. And while it DID happen, it was short-lived and I stuck it out, but it left me jumpy and rattled for quite a while after that. It's funny. In a horse that's normally spooky I think it would have shaken me less, but in her it was so sudden and strange that I carried a worry for a while that she might spook in a zero-to-one-hundred way at some point that I wouldn't see coming.

However. She hadn't done a single BIG spook since.

So, I was actually feeling pretty good about yesterday's return to the outdoors. However, the afternoon started to have some bad weird weather, with -- oh boy -- big random gusts of wind coming through. A perfect copy of the weather that had set her off outside the last time. I thought about cancelling but decided to just wait and see. And, PHEW, by the time my lesson was about to happen, it had all cleared up and was totally pleasant (if humid) out!

I hadn't ridden since Friday, and this would at one time have been a perfectly normal span between rides, but as I was riding four times or more per week over the last month and a half, I did notice some stiffness after that gap. It didn't help that I just started running again this week for the first time since January, and my legs were still sore from that. However! The ride went, and felt, much better than expected. For some reason I was REALLY pushing for a fast trot, and clucking a lot when I'm normally actually a pretty quiet rider. I kept having to be told to bring her back a bit, when it's usually the opposite with me. The horse felt very different this ride -- not just my stiff body -- and it was interesting what a bit of time off, a change of scene, and the reintroduction of a couple of other riders into her schedule had done to how she felt. I had been the only one riding her for months, so we were very tuned in to each other. Maybe a little too much, as I think it's good for both horse and rider to change things up a bit!

We rode over some poles at the trot, and I was stiff enough that I actually had to go up a hole from my usual dressage saddle length as I just wasn't draping quite as long as I usually do when I'm really relaxed and open in my hips. My coach's advice is to "ride the best you can with the body you have" on a given day, though, so up went the stirrups and I rode in a slightly lighter seat. My canter seat -- which had been so much more open in the hips and following so much better lately -- was wanting to bounce, so I let myself float above it a bit instead and let a lot of the motion drop down into my heel (keeping your advice in mind, DDN, thanks!!) and was able to still ride pretty well despite my tired body fighting me. I managed to do it without popping right up into a half seat, which would normally have been my default on a stiff day. My old hunter lessons frequently kick back in (involuntarily) despite the fact that I haven't had one in nearly 20 years!

We also did a lot of canter work, including quite a few transitions, and some 15 and 10 meter canter circles. My canter to walk transitions were not so great as my body wanted to post the one or two strides of trot that would slip in there, which didn't exactly help. We also did some flying changes on a figure eight, and my recent failure at staying in counter canter had taught me that a much lighter ask for the change was enough, and those went a lot more smoothly.

Riding in the humidity, plus my tired post-run legs, made me feel like I was having much more of a push ride experience than I think, in hindsight, that I actually was. Still, it was really interesting to feel the difference being back in that ring again after so much riding this winter. I felt so much better, more in control (even though my steering wasn't amazing -- but I think I just need to relearn my spatial awareness in there, as my steering was pretty spot on all winter). My body is so much stronger and more balanced now.

And despite my stiffness, my sitting trot was actually really good! Go figure. Bodies are so strange.

I also got some good news, in that I can continue with my usual horse this season for a very reasonable fee, AND ride two of the less-used lesson ponies for free, to tune them back up. I also have access to a nice Western horse, at a different barn, that I can put some rides on for free. All in all, it seems I will be rolling in ponies this year!

Friday, April 27, 2018

I recapped elsewhere but forgot to actually update here! Oops! Here's Tuesday's update:

Today was a GREAT ride!

Whatever the "something" in the air was yesterday, everything was fine this morning and the mare was back to her usual self. I lunged her first just to see if she had any reaction to the door and she didn't care a bit.

She was well warmed up from the lunging, so I mainly focused on canter work. She's an older horse and had gotten a little out of shape last year, but this winter she's put on lots of muscle and is looking fantastic. "The best she's looked in a few years" according to her owner, so that's great to hear. As she's gotten stronger she's had more balance and stamina in the canter. I did a pattern each direction: one full lap, then a second lap with a 15m circle at the top, a 20m circle in the centre, and a 15m circle at the far end. She nailed it and sustained the canter throughout. I also did some pretty tight trot serpentines to keep her moving through those turns.

My canter seat has really improved with the amount of riding I've been doing lately. Whereas even a couple weeks ago, I had a bit of bounce one way, I'm actually able to sit deep and stay there both ways now, most of the time.

And here's today's:

Today's ride was pretty okay? I was in a wretched mood today, and unfortunately I have trouble leaving Life Stuff outside of the riding ring. Even if I'm able to push it away mentally, it creates tension in my body and things just don't feel quite right. Even if I'm technically riding fine, I feel "off." Today was one of those. Plus I hadn't ridden since Tuesday, and even though two days of not riding would have sounded like nothing to me before, I've ridden so much lately that it felt like "time off" that I didn't really want to take.

And from a technical perspective, today I really wasn't quite as "fine" as usual. My sitting trot, which has been improving lately, was so stiff I could actually feel myself catching air time in the saddle. Not good. I was able to use the muscles in my seat and thighs to cushion the blows so I wasn't actually thumping the horse hard in the back, but having to do that also interfered with softly following with my seat, so it became a bit of a vicious loop.

My canter seat was following fine though, and staying soft and active, which was interesting. The canter work was decent today, if very pokey, but she STAYED in canter (with one notable exception that I'll describe further on). My upwards transitions were a bit messy. I did both trot to canter and walk to canter. She would lift her front end nicely to step under, and at the same moment I'd be caught leaning forward and the reins would go slack for that first moment. Not particularly elegant, but I was fine every time once we were actually IN canter. Really need to work on those upwards transitions. Our downwards transitions have been great -- probably aided by her tendency to want to poke along lately. :/ 

I had lunged her first, in some elastic side reins as she tends to sort of shuffle along and not carry herself well if she isn't given some incentive now and then. But I think what limited energy she had today was spent before I got on her. She's been in heat all week, and AGGRESSIVELY sidling up to the boys in the paddock! I think by today it had taken a lot out of her. Still, even though she wasn't forward in her gaits, she STAYED in them quite well for the most part.

I did have one moment of "Oh no you DIDN'T!!" with her. Often, in the first bit of canter, she'll have to tug her head down to get a good cough or two out of her system, and then she's good to go. (Just an allergy thing that crops up sometimes, and exercise seems to set her off a bit.) And even though she had gotten some of her coughs out on the lunge today, I felt her suddenly plunge down during one of our first canters of the ride, so I let the reins slip so she could cough it out... And there was NO cough!!! She punked me! Reefed the reins right out of my hands and dropped into a sedate trot. SMART horse! If that's her being "naughty" then I'm very, very lucky to be riding such a nice horse! ;) And I am!

Today was my last ride up at the winter barn with the nice indoor arena, before they're moved back home for the season. I won't be able to ride nearly as much now, but I have come away from this winter a much better, stronger rider -- today's stiff ride aside. (I really do wish today's ride had been another AMAZING ride like Tuesday's but we all have our days!) And it's made me a better horse person, with all the handling and feeding I've done over this winter. It's been really lovely, as much as it's also been very hard work. I'll miss it, but I'll also enjoy having my mornings back!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Not my best ride this morning. Not my worst, but still, one of those kind of "off" days.

Things didn't start out too well when my car wouldn't start because my partner had been dinking around with the headlights last night, and didn't periodically start it to keep the battery charged. So we had to find someone to give us a boost, and I got to the barn late and irritated.

When I got on the horse, I had a weird case of nerves. And I think I jinxed myself last night. I was reflecting on how my riding has been going lately, and feeling pleased about how much my confidence has improved and how I'm much better at visualizing successful rides instead of conjuring up all the ways I *could* possibly have a wreck.

Getting self-congratulatory is apparently a good way to remind your subconscious that it isn't done with you yet. As soon as I was on her, my brain started to picture ways things could go south. Great.

Did I mention this horse is solid and not spooky 99.87% of the time? I've had ONE spooky day on her, back in the fall, where it was way too much for me and I did think I was going to take a spill. That was a cold, noisy, windy day with random HUGE gusts blowing through the arena and rattling the trees and gates, though. And I should have lunged her first but I was too lazy to go back to the barn for the equipment. I digress...

Today, things started out steady as usual, but on one of our 20m canter circles, she decided she had a problem one direction with the sliding door that goes out to the back paddock. She did those straight-ahead "radar ears" at it, and cut in on that side of the circle to avoid it and was blowing off my aids and turning her head out to look at it. Great. I took her around two more times with the same result, and she cut in to avoid it MORE rather than less. Not what I needed on a day where I was already feeling tense. You can tell I've been spoiled by how easy this horse normally is -- and how off I was already today -- when THAT is enough to make me feel threatened. I stopped trying the large canter circles beside it and did smaller trot circles. She was mostly fine, but not TOTALLY fine, and I moved on to other things to get both our minds off it.

Amusingly, she was fine going right past it along the track, but any angle I took that had her approaching it where she was looking directly at it, I got the EARS and the little OMG from her. Made me wonder if something was out there. I tried a four-loop serpentine at the pokiest ever trot, and she still was not cool going towards it. She had a couple small "moments" that probably looked like nothing, but I could feel them. After I'd put in a decent workout on her I stopped things for the day.

Nothing "happened," and I think she and I actually both went pretty well otherwise. When I'm nervous the tension does affect my riding, though, and I tend to tip a bit, tighten a bit, and my one shoulder that likes to pop up and forward on me goes there and wants to stay there. I'm also now switching up my saddle, back and forth between a dressage saddle and a new GP one so I don't get "spoiled" by the dressage saddle, but I do feel less secure in the GP that I used today.

Over all, I didn't get the "sweeeeet, awesome ride!!" feeling today that I've been getting lately, but they can't all be like that. 

With lots more riding I've developed a lot more "feel" for any tension in the horse. My coach rolls her eyes at me for thinking little "nothings" are a big deal. And I do need to learn to just ride through stuff, but after some bolting and major spooking falls very early in my riding days, my self-preservation, defensive instincts are VERY strong. (Strong enough that I'm not sure why I chose THIS sport some days, haha.) I think mostly it's a good thing, but heaven help me if I'm ever taking lessons on an ACTUALLY spooky horse.

Friday, April 20, 2018

I had another lesson today, and my coach wasn't kidding last time when she said we'd start getting into more advanced stuff. We did some canter work, including some flying changes across the diagonal. This horse and I haven't been doing the greatest flying changes, exactly, but they're starting to improve. Part of the initial problem was stiffness and a lack of fitness on the horse's part, but she's started getting much more fit and balanced in the canter, and is looking and feeling great, so we're going to be incorporating more work like this as her and my fitness progress.

Our changes weren't going very smoothly, as I'm still not used to them and find them kind of rough. Unfortunately I exacerbate the problem by anticipating it being uncomfortable, and bracing my body, while also trying to turn her too sharply to force the change and get it over with. Oh boy! So for experiment's sake, my coach had me also go across the diagonal but try to stay on the same lead and proceed in counter canter. Well! I got much nicer, smoother flying changes when I didn't even want them. *facepalm* But it was a great lesson in asking more subtly and just LETTING them happen when I DO ask for them!!

Trying to maintain counter canter itself was a crazy mindgame. Well, mind-and-body game. I haven't practiced it in a year and a half, and the ring we're riding in right now is REALLY small so it's extra challenging to maintain it in such a tight space. But, trying to maintain outside flexion while turning to the inside?? Bwuhhhhh. My muscle memory betrayed me over and over and I would either accidentally ask for a change, or end up holding her too tightly and fall into trot. Definitely going to need to practice this! It's good to have a new thing to be baffled by, though. Haaa.

Otherwise things felt and, apparently, looked quite good. The only major feedback was really to move my hips more but my shoulders less when I post. So, keep my shoulders in kind of the same "space bubble" but have my hips come forward and back. "Imagine you're trying to push your hips towards your hands so you can super subtly do up your fly and hope no one notices!" That bit of advice totally did it. In riding, wording is sometimes everything.

Oh, and the shoulder. Always, the shoulder. That was the other thing. It's always my other thing. ;)

After the ride, three of us were standing around talking by M's stall and she had her head hanging out into the hallway, with her lower lip hanging loose and a soft eye. I kept scratching under her jaw and she was really into it, and her lip kept flapping around. She's not a super social horse, so it's nice when she's in a friendly mood and just wants to hang out with people and get some attention. <3