Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The nature of progress

I think, when I started back into riding after my sixteen year hiatus, I thought... Well, first of all I thought it would be very easy to "get back to where I was." I thought that, with a few weeks or even a couple of months -- max -- of regular riding, without outside guidance, I'd just pick it all back up again. Because obviously I must remember everything I once knew, and what I once knew must have been everything I needed to know, right?

Well, as it tends to be with these things... it did not go that way, not at all.

Sixteen years of growing from a teen to an adult, sixteen years of not having to use my body symmetrically, or stretching or working those muscles and tendons. Wow. Sure, my brain remembered a lot of the theory, but the majority of my feel was gone, and my flexibility and strength had definitely left the building a long time ago. Confidence had left along with them.

So, there I was, starting basically from scratch. Even though the road ahead was clearly going to be a little (a lot) longer than I had anticipated, I still thought that progress would be something that happened in a linear, steady fashion. Well... no.

Welcome to the game of "got it, lost it."

Many things HAVE played out that way, but many more things have not. Sitting the trot, for example: couldn't get it, and then after a few rides on Syd, I FOUND the motion I needed, and it translated really wonderfully to my lessons. And then... I lost it. I haven't found it again since, though I'm working at it.

Sitting the canter: I was bouncing and bouncing and bouncing for my whole first season, and then, in my first lesson on the same horse, after four or five months off... I could sit it smoothly and effortlessly. It just happened. But then, in the very next lesson, back to bouncing. I'm only now able to sit it smoothly again, a year later, and only if I actively think about it!

Also, most notably, I've just gotten... abruptly better this season. I don't know why. Everything is just clicking, and I feel strong, stable, in control, and able to give more directed and specific aids than ever. My confidence has also increased a lot. My lower leg has stabilized a LOT -- it's in just the right place and feels so strong and stable! My leg is right under me -- no more chair seat -- and where I used to ride off the back of my leg when I had just restarted, I now use my calves and the inside of my legs for impulsion. Swinging my leg back for a canter cue, and a well-timed push with my seat, is becoming deliberate and easy in a way that it hasn't been in yeeeeeaaaars. Last night I even rode the easiest flying change I've had since I returned to riding -- smooth and balanced and relatively effortless.

My left shoulder, which has a habit of creeping up and forward, seems to have mainly been tamed, and I'm keeping nice and straight instead of collapsing my right side. My hands feel much more stable as well.

I wish I could say all these sudden improvements were the result of fitness efforts over the off season, but... no. No, it just seems to have happened. I'll take it! And hopefully... I've got it!

Strange but good sudden progress

I had my second lesson of the season last night. There was some trot and canter in two point, some posting trot, some seated canter, and lots of changes of direction. And lots of walk to canter, canter to (okay, almost) walk. I was apparently on my GAME, and everything was looking great! Which also felt great! My coach told me lower leg had improved so much, and was stable and controlled enough, that I could, if I wanted to, actually ride responsibly with stirrups.

It's very strange. I seem to have suddenly improved this spring, and I'm not entirely sure why. It's not like I was riding diligently throughout the winter. Instead I had, basically, four months off. I didn't even do anything to stretch or exercise to keep myself fit for riding. Yet somehow, my position is suddenly and drastically better.

I have been doing a LOT of thinking, and reading, and just doing little positional things when I'm sitting or driving or working on stuff to try to straighten and correct my torso and shoulder. I think that's been part of it. I've retrained my default position to something straighter. I've also been thinking about starting my turns by just turning my shoulders; very little else really needs to happen after that, as it's enough for most horses. Even the green pony seems to instinctively understand. I think, also, those four jumping lessons in North Bay, where the instructor was after me to get my leg further back under me, helped me adjust my position in a positive way. It's like the inside ball of my calf has been able to "lock in" and now that I have the feeling, it's so nice and solid that I don't want to use my leg any other way! It's also possible that changing saddles has helped a bit too; I'm pretty convinced that the lesson saddle I was using for most of last season wasn't a good fit for me. I think the stirrup bars were too far forward and it was encouraging a chair seat.

My seat definitely got tested at one point last night, when the horse ABRUPTLY pulled her head down to the ground to cough. I was caught off guard and was YANKED forward -- but my lower leg stayed put and kept me on board!! Whew! Actually, the yanking was a sign of another positive development, amusingly enough: it means I'm clearly no longer riding with an open hand.

New material covered: keeping my hands higher while cantering, similar to where I hold them in the two point, to encourage the horse to lift her front end and not get as heavy. I did feel like I was driving and half-halting with a lot more instinct and control last night. Felt really rewarding! I also feel much stronger now, and like I'm driving more correctly with my legs, and with my seat when I do use it.

My canter seat is a lot better as well. I can actually sit and follow (though I still have to consciously decide to do so) without bouncing, especially when I have her lifting and moving under herself. My hands are able to have some give without actually pumping in the canter. I didn't hear anything about my elbows or shoulders, so that must be looking better as well. My circles were pretty round, too.

After my lesson, I worked with my project pony. She had been away being used in kid lessons for the last couple of weeks, and was apparently a little superstar! I had a bit of an ordeal tacking her up last night. She decided that bug spray was TERRIFYING and pulled free from the cross ties on the very first squirt. Sigh. So I then corralled her in her stall where I tried to find a balance between spraying enough away from her to desensitize her, but not wasting all the product. :/ I could have done a better job of it than I did. I think next time I go out, I'll bring a spray with just water in it and work on the desensitization with that so I don't feel like I have to be so economical.

After I got her sprayed (I bribed her with carrots and sprayed her while she was distracted by chewing them), I put her back in the cross ties and she pulled loose AGAIN when I towards her with the saddle. This time she definitely wasn't scared. She just did it to be a shit because she knew she COULD. Next time I cross-tie her, I'm keeping a short lead with a chain on her nose so I can actually DO something about it without putting her or me in danger. Grrrrr. That, or I could have a rope halter under the nylon halter, with a regular lead tied to that. Just something to grab and get leverage if she decides to be an idiot, so she doesn't think she can get out every time.

The ride itself was great though! Mounting wasn't perfectly smooth, but it was all right. She also didn't want to stand at a halt during the ride, at any point, but given how many bugs were out that wasn't quite that big a deal. Even the seasoned lesson horse hates standing at a halt. You can only do so much, sometimes... I felt the most confident yet with her at the trot. She still had some resistance about heading toward the mounting block corner, but didn't put up as much of a fight as she sometimes does. She also wanted to avoid the part of the fence where I usually tack her up, haha. I guess she doesn't have the greatest feelings about those parts of the ring. XD  She got over it after a few passes, though, just by *riding* her straight and through. Despite the fact she didn't want to STAY halted, she was halting on a dime, even from a zippy trot. Her head was in the air most of the ride, but she didn't feel completely distracted or ever like she was out of control. All in all, this was my best ride on her!

At the end of it, she didn't pull out of the cross ties again. Although, one of the horses behind her escaped from its stall (I must not have latched it right. Oooooops!) and was wandering around, but there was no drama.

All in all, last night was a total win! I'm feeling really good about things, even though my legs are  basically jelly today! :D

Friday, June 2, 2017

A few updates

I haven't been super on-the-ball with this lately. Oops! I've had a few rides since, and they've all definitely been better than my last doom-and-gloom post.

I've been out to work with the pony at least once or twice since, and she was much better. I'm continuing to do the hand-walking on the trails before lunging and riding her, and it really does get us both in a better headspace. Last time I did this, I even took her out on the road. Although it has basically no traffic, it was still somewhere new to check out. She was more "up" and doing her anxious snorty thing a little, but not anywhere near as bad as a few weeks before. She decided she didn't like a culvert at the side of the road and gave that a wide berth, but was otherwise cooperative. I do really wish she'd stop crowding me when she's anxious, but she's getting better. I keep giving her a good few jabs with my elbow when she does it, and she's a bit more respectful.

The last time I rode her, the bugs were SO BAD. She wouldn't stand still for tacking up or mounting and was miserable. I can't blame her at all, poor kid. There's now some bug spray available, so I'll be better equipped to deal with that next time! I rode her walk-trot, with another rider in the ring, and she was a good girl despite all the bugs. It's been at least two or three weeks now since I've ridden her, though, as she's been on loan to some clients for their private use. When she's in company with her best buddy horse friend, she's so cooperative she's actually safe for small kids. It's quite the change. I'm going to keep working on the separation anxiety angle with her, because that does seem to be her most significant problem.

It does seem to be getting better, though! Has a long way to go, of course, but it's come down a lot. I went up for a lesson a week and a half ago at the private barn, and rode the other horse. The pony had to go and wait in her stall alone during this time, and my coach said "She's probably going to have a fit in there the whole time." But, other than being a bit antsy at first, we only heard ONE neigh the whole lesson, and she seemed to settle fine on her own. Not bad!!!

Speaking of that lesson, on the horse, it was good to get my butt kicked again, haha! I did walk, posting trot, and canter, both seated and two point. I rode in the arena, but also out of it! The place has big sliding doors, so the arena doubles as a shelter for turnout. I trotted and cantered the horse out of the ring, along the fence line down a little hill, a big circle around the round bale, and a MOTIVATED two-point canter up the little hill and back into the ring!

It all went pretty smoothly, although I did let her drop out of canter a few times when I shouldn't have. It wasn't her though -- it was very much me. Although everything was fine, I'm not feeling incredibly confident right now after all the time off from instruction. I didn't feel up to full strength in my legs and back and core, but apparently I actually looked really good! I've somehow managed to improve my position, especially my lower leg position, since I last had regular lessons in early January. I think part of it was having those four jumping lessons in North Bay. What the coach said really clicked with me, about getting my lower leg down and back, and using the backs of my thighs as a supportive extension of my seat.

So, apparently I looked a lot better than I felt like I looked! I'm still rounding my back a lot when I'm in two point, and I have a LOT of trouble convincing myself that it's okay to not have my butt tucked under in readiness to influence in the saddle. Still riding defensively. I also need to work on my core strength because even when I CAN convince myself to straighten my back, I can't maintain it for more than a few seconds. Oh well, a year and a bit ago I couldn't even stay in two point at ALL, sooooo.

It was also my first outing in my new tall boots!! Woooo! They were a bit slippery at first but they were great after about ten minutes. I didn't even really notice them, which is pretty ideal for a first ride in a pair of boots that haven't been broken in. I think they might be a touch too big, but nothing that an insole or a thicker pair of socks won't remedy.

The mare and the pony have been up at the private place for a couple of weeks now, so last night I went and rode a horse I never have before. This boy was my coach's personal horse, but he's proven to be too mentally fried from a very intense life of competition to handle the mental strain of more advanced dressage any more. He used to be capable of grand prix movements, but he's since made it clear he's DONE. Her idea is to get other riders on him who will get him to relax into less taxing work, so he can maybe decompress and learn to like having a job again.

He was a total gentleman to brush and tack up, but when I got him out to the ring he would NOT stand still for me to get his reins and throatlatch arranged for lunging. He just kept spinning and spinning and spinning around me in a tiny tight circle while I held on to him. Ugh. So I just let him spin and spin and spin and spin around me while I held onto him. Probably looked pretty comical. But I eventually got him ready. I had the lunge whip in my hand but I obviously didn't need it as he took off right away, tearing around me unprompted at a rushed canter and tripping in the deep footing. Sigh. "Just lunge him first." Hahahaha. I can see why! He was pulling and the bit actually slid THROUGH his mouth, so I had to carefully reel him in (still cantering until the circle was TINY, mind you) and redo the setup so the line was through the bit ring and over the poll. Then everything was fine.

I let him run around both ways until he was willing to slow to a walk on his own. He still seemed UP, but I was like, "Welllllp, this might be as good as it gets." I'd heard he could be a bt of a dinkus about the mounting block, but he wasn't that bad, at least this time. I had to chase him with it a bit like I do with Syd, but he was still easier to get on than the pony!

Once I was up, twenty minutes of walk commenced, with him trying to jig and me closing my knees and yanking on his face. There was a lot of hold one rein, pulse the other, hold one rein, pulse the other. My stirrups were about two holes too long, which didn't help the situation. I just pretended I was riding stirrupless and thought about using the backs of my thighs to hold and balance me.

This was definitely my most "hot horse" experience in ages. He seemed like he was never going to settle, and had those radar ears pointing straight up and forward, which as one of my friends put it, "usually precede my butt landing in the dirt." I remembered the advice to actually keep a soft hand and leg ON on a horse being hot, so I tried different variations of that. I also tried to keep him thinking by leg yielding, which he did beautifully one direction, but took as a cue to go faster the other way. Whoops. At one point he seemed SLIGHTLY better so I asked for trot and got a canter stride instead. Brought him back immediately and halted.

I did a lot of walk-halt walk-halt and eventually I didn't have to use EVERYTHING I had to halt him. I'm not sure what the exact moment was, but his head started to come down, and he started to round and relax a bit. I did do a little trot (awkward with my miles-too-long stirrups and his big movement!!) and he settled in some more.

By the end, my coach came out and we were chatting, and he was just walking calmly with his head down, on a loose rein. Like a totally different horse. Apparently this was actually his first time being ridden in that ring, at least the first time this season, so his nervousness made a bit more sense. Despite that hot beginning of the ride, I'd ride him again. He's VERY sensitive, which can of course be good and bad, but I think if I'm just very thoughtful and careful about how I ride him, it could be quite lovely to work with a horse who has so much knowledge, despite his attitude issues.

Fun fact: I used my bridle on him. The one I last used on Razz over twenty years ago. I conditioned it with Leather CPR before I went out there, and it looked PERFECT and brand new. It was actually a bit big on him, which is funny, because he's considerably larger than her. Just has a dainty head, I guess!