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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

After my post on Tuesday, April 11, I had a lesson the next day, and then... my back spasmed a bunch and I didn't ride for nearly another week. But, it seems better now, so that's good!

My first lesson after my coach got back from her trip (the lesson on the 12th) was a bit rough for me as a couple things changed. I tried a different saddle, and that's often a bit of an adjustment once you've gotten used to a different one, especially something as specialized as a dressage saddle. Also, I think my back was starting to feel a bit strained by that day, although it wasn't doing anything specifically bad or anything. Also, turns out I'd kind of been letting the horse just... plod along. What felt like nice relaxed movement to me (which, granted, it was) was a bit too relaxed, so we spent the lesson getting me to try to make her MOVE more! So my thoughts of my first lesson being all "Oooooo look how GOOD I got while you were gone!" weren't quite on the money. ;) Of course, I'd much rather have a productive lesson anyhow, which this was, so I'm not actually complaining.

The next day, my back started going NOPE, so I did do the morning chores, but I didn't ride. By the next day it had been bad enough that I skipped doing the stalls, and definitely didn't ride. Then I had the weekend off chores, and decided not to ride then either.

Monday I MEANT to ride, but instead I couldn't get up the first hill into the driveway, as there was thick wet snow everywhere. I tried to back down it and wound up stuck off to one side of the driveway. Yay. I called the groundskeeper and he was able/willing to come out with a tow rope and pull me out. Phew!! I made a snowman while I waited. The car came out easily on the first try, so that was a relief! By the time I got up to the barn, I was over an hour later than I meant to be, and the horses were all WOUND. UP. So I got them fed and out and did everything BUT ride. No time and not worth it!! I was so happy to get out of there and home after all that, I don't think you could have PAID me to stay up there longer or head back up.

I had a nice ride on my own on Tuesday, back in the dressage saddle. Worked on something we had tried a couple of times in the previous lesson, which was to spiral in on a canter circle until she was very collected, and then ask for a walk transition. It went quite well. She's definitely MUCH stronger, and so am I!

She did a couple of dumb things with popping her head up and tugging the reins, so it was back in the bungee reins again for yesterday's lesson! She was NOT happy about it, but she did everything I asked for.

That lesson (which was yesterday) was the ego boosting praise-heavy lesson I had kind of hoped for, haha. I was really in a good groove and even though M was a bit stiff, and kept moving her head around to test the bungee reins, I was riding well and my coach was noticing and liking the changes. My seat looks great, my alignment is good, I'm MUCH stronger and no longer have a "weak side." I still need to work to turn my left shoulder more when I'm going that direction, but it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be. She also said, "Every time I go to tell you to fix something today, you fix it yourself before I can say anything!" So my awareness and feel have gotten drastically better too.

Funny thing: when I rode alone on Tuesday, my canter to the left was smooth and I sat it well, but my canter to the right was stiff. In my lesson, I cantered to the left first and felt stiff, then when I cantered to the right I was about to say "See, I'm much better this direction" before I realized that I was on the "bad" side but riding it better than the "good" side!!

She was really happy with my progress and said now that I'm stronger and more even and able to isolate my aids, we can start doing more advanced work. Cool!!!!

She also said my sitting trot is "a lot better than most people's" and that my main problem now is that my hands want to come up and bounce around. I need to relax, keep that tailbone tucked, and also keep my hands low and wide.

More good things were said, about my riding and about the conditioning of the horse, who apparently is looking better than she has in the last few years. She even has a nice bit of muscle developing along her crest, which she's never had the entire time I've been riding her.

This morning I tried the other saddle again, except this time it had knee blocks in place, I didn't use the puffy pink half pad, and I put my stirrups up one hole from last time. And it actually felt great! I had no problems whatsoever in it, and my position felt really good. If my coach wants me to keep going in this one instead of using her personal saddle (totally understandable!!) I'm okay with that.

My canter was actually really good BOTH ways today! Wow! I felt really plugged in today, and I don't know if it was the saddle, but it didn't hurt at least. I counted her strides on each circle, between letters on the long side... Half of a large circle one way was 11 strides, and the other way it was 12. Consistently. Interesting. So, her stride on the right lead is longer than her stride on the left. Something to keep in mind to continue conditioning her as evenly as possible. Need to push her out more to the left.

A side benefit of counting the strides: it really helped my canter! My seat was deep and in tune, I was focused on an outcome so I was more inclined to keep her moving forward well and consistently. Definitely want to keep that up!

I'm going to try to ride again tomorrow either in the morning, or in the afternoon in a lesson. Will see how things go! Feeling really good this week, though!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Ride ride ride ride ride ride ride ride ride!

I'm feeling great about my riding lately. M and I are really clicking more than ever, and she's been absolutely wonderful these past two weeks. She's carrying herself better and has more energy and better responsiveness. I'm also carrying MYself better, and have better energy and responsiveness!

I've put in more concentrated riding in the last week and a half than I think I have... ever. I haven't ridden so much since Pony Club camp! Today is Tuesday. Other than Monday of last week, and this past Saturday, I've ridden every morning since (and including) Sunday, April 1. The rides have been anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, but have mostly been in the 25 to 35 minute range. So, neither one of us gets worn out, but it's still lots of time to work on things and tone some muscles.

My body feels amazing. My back feels like it's been stretched out very tall and flat. My hips are unlocked and open. My hamstring strength has changed a lot too. I feel like a lot of angles in my body have really opened up in new and better ways. The "shoulders like a lady, hands like a queen, hips like a whore" description of riding posture is starting to really happen. I could still follow more with my lower back, but the kind of supportive softness necessary can only come from increased strength. So, it IS getting there, but I'm understanding now why it's been so difficult for me.

I also feel like I'm riding more quietly than ever, which, now that I'm stronger, translates to riding a lot more effectively. It's amazing how much strength and control it takes to just sit tall and really ride on top of the motion.

Yesterday I did some canter circles, and also did two and a half laps of it each direction! Woohoo! She did break a couple of times but nowhere near as much as she used to.

I've still been leaving off the bungee reins. Her cough has let up, but she's still rounding herself better and hasn't been pulling, so I'm in no hurry to put them back on if she's going so nicely on her own. I took her bridle home and completely stripped it, cleaned and conditioned it, and put it back together. When I did, I let the bit down one hole lower on each side. I've been wanting to try that, as I wondered if some of the tugging comes from her having it so high and feeling like she can't get away from the pressure. She also constantly wants to scratch at the corners of her mouth when the bridle is in. But I also didn't want to second guess my coach! Still, I thought it was worth experimenting with. I've had two rides so far with it lower. It's definitely high enough to be well clear of her teeth, so that's not a worry. She has played with it a bit both times I've put it on her, which she never normally does, but in a good way, not in a get-her-tongue-over-it way. She hasn't been in as big a hurry to scratch her mouth, either. She still does, but today it was like an afterthought instead of something urgent.

I did some no stirrups work yesterday and today towards the end of the ride. Yesterday's was okay, but today's felt great! I did both rising and sitting yesterday, but today I just did sitting. I did a couple of laps each way today, crossing the diagonal frequently. I was sitting good and deep and not bouncing much. I did lots of circles both ways, as they force me to turn my body and balance myself. To the left, I really have to turn my shoulder and torso to stay balanced. To the right, I almost have to lean my body into the turn, which is weird. Probably comes from my right side wanting to shorten up on me.

All in all, feeling much stronger and more sturdily upright, if that makes sense. I'm like a stone column up there -- but, you know, one that can bend when and where it counts.

Not that I want this to actually happen -- I certainly don't and it's not even possible anyhow -- but it would be so interesting to try to ride with my current new muscle memory and riding knowledge... with the body I had when I first started back at this. I think it would really demonstrate how much hard work and conditioning has been going into my riding. It'll be three years back at it, this June or July. So very different from where I began! Who knew.

One more note about today: the caretaker of the property came in to the ring right after I'd mounted, and we chatted a bit while I rode. I think the distraction actually helped because I rode pretty effortlessly and felt bold and in control. Maybe a little part of me likes an audience of someone who isn't a more accomplished rider? Does part of me like showing off, just a *little* bit? If so that's probably a good thing.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

This morning I rode for about 35 minutes. Which is actually on the longer side for me lately; a lot of my rides have just been 25 minutes. Trying to take a BIT more time while I'm up there anyhow!

Did lots of transitions. The canter continues to improve for both of us. I did sort of a trot serpentine with a 15m canter circle at each end and a 20m circle at the half way point down each side, but I varied some of it so the places for the transitions wouldn't be as predictable for her.

I continue to get stronger supportive seat muscles. It's amazing what a difference it makes when I remember to use the backs/bottoms of my thighs to support me. Everything else starts to click, plus it cushions my ride without gripping or tensing. It's a good feeling and I want to do as much as I can to strengthen those muscles before the horses go back. Still really enjoying the change of saddle, even though it is a bit of a head trip and I feel like I have to ride very differently in it.

One of my favourite parts of today's ride was, just towards the end, doing a nice forward trot on a long rein and feeling her stretch down and really move through her whole back and whole body. She wasn't nearly as cough-y today, either, so that meant less brace in both of us. Less snot in her nose. So, good! Still no bungee reins but she's been very good and light and moving better anyhow, so they've maybe done their job for now.

I did a tiny bit of trot with no stirrups towards the end of the ride, but something was clicking like crazy, a buckle or something, and it was distracting/concerning me so I walked her out and hopped off. Didn't find whatever it was, though.

I can feel a bit of imbalance in my hips that I don't think was as pronounced in the previous saddle -- but it is ME and not the saddle! I think it's at least partly caused by my right side wanting to shorten on me. Just need to keep working on staying LONG on that side.

The thigh-rolling test was A+ again today. Perfect thigh position flat against the saddle. That was cool.

I also feel like I'm finding a more effective way to close my thighs that doesn't pop me up out of the saddle on downwards transitions. It seems to come from a place higher up than where I was squeezing before. Closer to those supportive muscles I'm trying to develop.

Still lots to do to work on staying loooooonnnnnngggg at all times. But, it's coming!

I also need to sit deep and stop leaning and pumping to get her up into canter. I need to sit deep, ask, and instead of trying to SHOVE her into it, just stay still and back up my outside leg cue with my whip. Why is sitting still and doing as little as possible so hard?

I'm also noticing a distinction in how I use my lower leg to move the horse over vs. how I ask for speed. Going to use more of the flat of my calf for "over," and more of my ankle for "go," I think. It's a distinction that makes sense to me and seems to make sense to the horse.

Cute moment from after the ride: I gave her a very small handful of her new grain that she likes, as a treat, then started blanketing her. She kept stretching her neck and head down and around on this funny angle and looking at me kind of sideways with a lip nudge to say "MORE please!" and it was ADORABLE. I never give her treats so it must have been pretty exciting for her. I'll have to be careful though because she was SUCH a mooch and I could see it getting to be a "thing" very quickly.

As much as I like her I've never felt a super strong "bond" with her but that's definitely changed over the course of this winter, and I think it's mutual. She seems interested in me instead of just indifferent, and we both seem nice and at ease with each other. It's a good feeling. I'll miss her a lot once they go back home, even though I'll still see and ride her once or twice a week. It's not going to be the same as her being "my" horse for the winter.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Thighs: blocking, bracing, supportive

I don't know the actual muscle names. I do know that there are three different general "feels" to how I'm using my thigh muscles when I ride. And that unintentionally mixing these up leads to tensions/imbalances, etc.

Blocking: This is using the inside of my thighs to bring in the knees and slow the shoulders of the horse. This also describes a stillness in the bottoms/backs of my thighs that slows motion. Either of these, or some combination, can slow the gait, cause a downwards transition, or even a halt. Bringing in the knees is most effective in the trot, to maintain the gait but slow the shoulders. It seems less effective for a downwards transition or halt, and that's where the stillness rather than the squeezing feeling helps more.

Bracing: This is when I use the muscles that would normally pop me into half seat or two point, but they tend to engage when I'm nervous in a type of defensive position. Not so desirable in dressage. Instead of supporting me in a way that absorbs and cushions the motion, this use of my thighs and lower legs braces against the motion and pops me above it. Again, good in certain applications, but not what I'm trying to currently develop. I tend to brace when I concentrate, or when I feel nervous or uncomfortable, or sense the horse is out of balance, or rushing, or on the forehand, etc. While it isn't necessarily a bad instinct it's one that I would like to have come into play a lot less often.

Supportive: This is the good stuff, right here! By lifting the front of my pelvis slightly and thinking of the backs/bottoms of my thighs as an extension of my seat, and using them in a downwards way -- rather than an inwards way -- I follow better and get wonderful, cushioned, soft, following, balanced support. There is no gripping; there is a constant self-adjusting self-balancing set of shocks in my seat when these are engaged. This stabilizes me in sitting trot and in canter, without creating stiffness or tension. My seat is deep and tall and follows well when I engage these muscles. I think these are probably the most important muscles for me to develop right now to further the development of my dressage seat.

Anyhoo, mini-article aside, here's where things are at lately. I've gotten in a number of short rides, anywhere from 20 minutes to 40 minutes, since my last entry. I had been using bungee reins over the poll and clipped to the girth to encourage more softness, roundness, and less heaviness in the bridle from M, but the last time I used them she had a pretty good coughing fit at the canter and I felt really bad for her being unintentionally punished for stretching down. She's had a snotty nose since, and some big coughs, so I've left them off this week. She's actually going very well without them -- maybe they were a good reminder at least? -- and is doing less tuggy leany stuff into my hands.

I've been working daily on sitting trot, and would say I'm probably doing 30-40% of my trotting sitting. Oof! Poor M, but I am getting MUCH better! I had been having trouble keeping my pelvis at the correct angle without rounding my upper body down and lifting my hands. But when I started using the backs of my thighs again properly the other day, it made a huge difference and I didn't feel as disorganized. There is definitely room for improvement! But I HAVE improved!

I've found that keeping my hands wider has helped with a softer hand on the reins at both sitting trot and canter. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but it feels good. Wider = still connected but softer, lighter, more following. I feel like I still have control and connection but I can move more. The contact feels more alive and active that way instead of like a wall.

This change of saddle has actually been very, very good for me. I can't cheat in it -- or at least not very easily! It also puts my leg back under me where it needs to be. I don't have to try to fight with a forward stirrup bar. Even though the AP saddle I was using wasn't nearly as bad as some for that, it still wasn't aligned like this dressage saddle! My leg is back under me and, I was pleased to discover yesterday, my thigh is flat against the saddle and couldn't be turned more correctly if I tried. (I did try, by first pulling my whole leg off the saddle, pushing my heels out wide, letting my legs fall back, then also grabbing the muscles on the backs of my thighs and pulling them out and off the saddle. They were as turned as they could be and didn't move at all when I did this! Woohoo!!!) I'm riding with a longer stirrup than I ever have -- they're more like shelves for my feet to rest on than anything else -- but it IS what this saddle calls for, and it actually feels good and stable (well, most of the time). I'm using the backs of my thighs to support me, more than that ankle drop that is so necessary to a forward seat. My body is having to readjust itself and learn some new muscle memory, and gain strength, but it's all good for me and it IS starting to click. I think gaining the right strength and position for this saddle will actually help me in all disciplines. Once my leg WANTS to be further back I know it will make Lauren happy if I go back for more lessons with her at any point. :)

The horses go back very soon. While the morning chores sometimes feel like a bit much, some days, I'm going to miss it a lot. It's been such a nice routine to start my day. And I feel like I've gotten to know all of them much better. I'll miss M most of all as she's been "my" horse for the winter. It's been so interesting to be (almost) the only rider for one horse for an extended period of time. We've certainly both learned a lot from each other and have developed a lot of feel for what the other's intentions are. And it's been nice to know how to "fix" things too. For example, I've accidentally taught her that when I shorten my reins, it's time to speed up. Well, she's not wrong! Ooops! So today I started to pick them up occasionally at the walk... and NOT ask her for anything more, then go long again. Got to keep them on their toes!

Also, she's been feeling a lot better lately. More forward, more energy. She tends to start off pokey but once she's thoroughly warmed up, I have to slow her down at least as much as I have to speed her up. She looks great, too. More muscle on her, and only just a slight amount of ribbiness, but not too much. She looks fit and healthy and younger than she did in the fall. She feels MUCH better in even just the last two weeks, at the canter. The weird choppy, hoppy canter to the left is gone and she's much more normal. (I always canter her to the right first as that's her better side and it helps get the stiffness out.) It probably helps that I've been a lot more relaxed too. My nerves come and go but I do feel stronger, and more stable and capable, lately. I'm sad they're leaving soon -- feel like I'm just starting to get the hang of some things! -- but I think that's always how it is in riding.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Let me begin with my usual intro: oops, I've been a bit lax about updating!

After the saddle bit the dust, my coach let me start using hers. It's a nice, quite substantial dressage saddle. It's comfortable and puts me in a good position. My leg is further back on her barrel, and back underneath me in proper vertical alignment. Finally, woohoo!

Now, the negatives of that are that, between the different stirrup/leg placement and a different slope and shape to the seat... my body is back to having more tension while the lengthening/shortening of different muscles adjusts to support me at the new angle. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh. Just when I'd stopped bouncing so much at sitting trot and especially at canter!

In the long run, though, this will be much better for me. I'll be stronger, more flexible, and have better leg placement.

My coach shot a short video of my sitting trot last week that was... BAD. You can see in it that my lower back is too arched and too stiff, and that I'm bouncing all over. In it, I'm not directing the bounce productively, so I'm just slamming around stiffly. The unfortunate thing is that it didn't even feel that bad! I didn't expect what I was doing would look so rough. You can even hear me at the beginning of the video saying "Other than my hands wanting to come up, this feels pretty good!" or something like that. Wellllllllll... no.

The good news is that I've continued to work on my sitting trot, and today I was really in the tack much better, and feeling much more flexible. For whatever reason M was being very pokey while I was doing my sitting trot. I SWEAR I was not gripping and not slamming her in the back. I think maybe she was reacting to the bungee reins*? She went better at rising trot, but still wasn't particularly forward in trot at all.

Her canter is much better lately! Hooray! It's really nice to ride her and not get the feeling that she HATES cantering! She was giving me the "fuck you" trot and not wanting to transition up the first couple of times I asked for it, and I had to use the stick, but once she got going she was happy to BE going, and only broke on me once when she got a bit excited going to the left and got out of balance. No funny stuff otherwise though, as far as overcollecting, feeling REALLY weird on the left, etc. She tripped up a bit with her back legs just once but she recovered fine and -- this is great -- I didn't panic!!

I do have more bounce back in my canter for about 90% of my rides right now, and that's mainly the saddle readjustment issue (plus just my underlying tension, which I was getting better at dealing with before the switch). But I'm cantering much more confidently even if it IS awkward for the time being.

About a week ago I was feeling a bit tense/bummed out that maybe I've hit my plateau as far as my riding skills go. That no matter what I'm going to have a certain amount of tension and bounce and awkwardness because riding just IS kind of scary and no amount of doing it is going to fix that. But this week I'm feeling better about things. I think I DO still have a lot of room to improve and that I have it in me to get there if I just keep things up. I can't get over how much better everything got over this winter!

*I've been using elastic reins that pass over the poll, through the bit, and attach to the girth buckles on either side, for most of my rides in the last couple of weeks. M has a habit of tugging and/or leaning  on the reins, and of also wanting to stay long and shuffle along that way instead of coming up round and soft. So, they help, while still letting her use herself as needed -- and even have a massive fit of coughing at the canter, apparently!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Saddle goes POP!

In my last lesson, my coach was saying she'd like to replace the saddle I've been using this season. These were apparently magic words, because, the very next ride, in about the last ten minutes of the ride I noticed this weird, occasional popping feeling under my right hip, coming from somewhere inside the saddle. The horse didn't seem to react to it at all, and it wasn't a BIG pop, but it was there.

The next ride, it was more frequent. Drat. Especially going to the right. Again, though, the horse didn't seem to notice it and it wasn't BIG.

I didn't, however, rule it out as somehow coming from the right stirrup, so today I lunged and then did a quick ride. Well, the popping was more frequent and I could feel it in BOTH sides, and it seemed to now be happening further back in the seat. And the horse DID notice it today, as her ears were flicking back when it was happening. Not in an "OW!" way. More in a "What IS that?!" way. But it's obviously getting worse quickly.

So, alas, I think that saddle is toast.

As far as the riding itself goes... I felt pretty sticky today. She WAS a bit pokey, I think because I lunged first, but also, because I was pretty sticky that had the side effect, I think, of her seeming to go more slowly. Her initial canters were nice and soft and slow and round. I did, however, get a few "fuck you" trots when I tried to pick up the canter, especially to the right. Once the saddle situation is sorted out, I'll be more confidently able to get after her for that. As it was this ride and the previous one, I was feeling nervous about the popping potentially spooking her so I was kind of lax.

My previous ride, I did manage a lead change each way across the diagonal, without breaking and without completely cutting off the corner. She did come onto her forehand kind of dive into them, but that might be unavoidable at this point in her age/soundness.

Over all, things have been feeling good, with a few exceptions. Perhaps because of the busted saddle problem, I've noticed that the saddle has been shifting left, and an unfortunate side effect of that is that my right side, which is prone to shorten up on me, shortens up even MORE because my weight wants to sink to the left.

Major improvements lately, though: my canter is so much better. I'm moving my back properly now. I'm actually surprised by how high up my back the motion has to start; it's actually right at the base of the rib cage. My sitting trot is steadily improving. My hands are more still, generally, though they could stand to come down a bit more. I'm able to isolate parts of my body better and better.

When I feel like I'm not improving as much as I'd like, I just have to look back to how difficult certain things were a year or a year and a half ago. Sitting the trot without stirrups is now relatively easy, and rising trot without stirrups isn't too bad either -- just a bit tiring and hard on my "bits" because of friction. But I do feel pretty solid at both. Not like I'm constantly losing and correcting my balance, or like I might slide off the horse at any time, like before. I haven't been doing canter without stirrups but mainly because the canter has been pretty not-perfect lately, and that's a lot to do with the horse's limited capabilities at this point, so it is what it is. All in all, this winter has done a LOTTTT for my riding, and I'm very grateful for how it's all been going!!