Diet changes

While we haven’t actually seen the vet since I last posted, we have of course kept in touch. All of the tests the vet ran on Drifter all came back slightly off, but not enough to point to anything specific, so the only option was to treat the symptom (diarrhoea). It seems likely that some specific event upset his gut balance and it hasn’t been able to fix itself although the cause is probably now no longer around. The probiotic hasn’t had a chance to re-populate the good gut bacteria because of the great speed at which it travels through the horse and into the muck heap!

So the plan was to slow everything down. While this could have been achieved medically, we would rather try doing it as gently as possible, so instead of an anti-diarrhoeal we are changing the diet, as you probably guessed from the title of the post.

We needed to go to a molasses-free chaff, so we switched from the ordinary Dengie Hi-Fi that he gets free as part of his livery package to Dengie Hi-Fi Molasses Free, which involved an exciting adventure to the feedshop, where I also remembered to purchase a bin to put it in.

The probiotic dose he was already on was doubled.

To soothe his stomach we are adding vegetable oil. While the vet would like him to have a cup-full in each feed, he knows most horses will reject this, so we started with a tablespoon-full in each feed and are increasing it every few days.

The final addition to his feed is charcoal. This is to slow the gut down and absorb toxins and he’s getting 3-4 tablespoons per feed.

Apart from the oil, everything else changed on the same day and Drifter was not at all sure about it. On the first day I wasn’t there at feed time but the staff said he spit the charcoal on the floor and overturned the bowl, but I was there for the next feed and he ate it fine. Perhaps he needed to learn that he wasn’t going to get his usual feed just because he rejected that one or perhaps it wasn’t well mixed, but since then he’s been OK with it. As a precaution I’ve asked that he doesn’t get his haynet until he’s finished his feed.

A few days on and I’m cautiously optimistic. [This is your Too Much Information warning here….] His bowel movements still begin with a flush of liquid, but the stools that follow are a much better consistency. They hold their shape, are a more uniform colour and the fibre within them looks much more broken down than it did before the diet change. While they’re still not as well digested as those produced by other horses on the yard (yes, I’ve spend a lot of time analysing the contents of the muckheap) they’re definitely a vast improvement.

He also seems to have more energy, and I’m hopeful he may put a little weight back on soon. He has lost quite a lot, which is not surprising. His saddle fit is pretty poor because of it, so we’ve borrowed a prolite pad from a friend until we can get our own. I don’t want to have a saddle fit until his weight settles down a bit though, as it’s too expensive to need another one only weeks later. Hopefully though, if this feed change continues to show benefits, we’ll be booking that saddle fit soon.

Despite the not-so-great saddle, he’s been doing very nicely in the school. We can walk and trot in a great shape, working well without worrying that we will overdo it. I don’t worry about anything in walk or trot now, and although we are still doing very little in canter, when we do canter, it is no uglier than it ever was! Today we had 20 m canter circles on the bit on both reins – the first time we’ve had that since pre-lameness, back in the early summer. The right rein was a bit motor-bike-ish, but still better than I had thought it might be.

Last Sunday I had a lesson booked but didn’t feel well, so once I’d warmed him up in walk my instructor got on. That was really interesting. Drifter looked very nice, of course, being ridden by an excellent dressage rider, and the comments were useful as well as seeing what he did. Of course Drifter gave him plenty of forwards, and made him work hard to contain it into something useful. The main thing the instructor articulated, which I sort of knew but it’s always good to have someone else verbalise it, is that he prefers to just go forwards rather than listen to what you’re asking, particularly if it’s something he didn’t expect. You have to really make him wait, almost stop him, before you ask for something hard or different from what he expected. He also agreed that we need to work on straightness and getting him equally responsive to aids from both sides. When I first got Drifter, Drifter kind of trained me to do everything with my weight or the left rein, because he’d ignore the right rein, leaning on the left, and just rush off like a giraffe if I touched him with either leg. As time’s gone on he accepts the leg better but has never responded equally to either leg because of stiffness issues and his preference for going only off the left rein. These days I can get him into both reins, but he’s still not even in his acceptance of the leg, and easily forgets to be even in the reins if I’m not on his case the whole time about it.

It was really nice to see that my instructor couldn’t get him to leg yield in both direction. One way he did achieve, but every time he tried on the other rein Drifter gave his “sorry I’m too busy rushing forwards” response and didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t do it. I don’t think he understands that a rider can ask him to move in that way or that he could actually do it. It made me feel so much better to see that he doesn’t have a pre-programmed button for leg-yield in that direction – it’s not just that I can’t do it! I know I ought to try programming it from the ground, but our ground-work has ground to a halt since I can’t use any treats because of the dietary restrictions. I know I could do things without treats, but since we’ve begun the whole clicker training and positive reinforcement process, I’m reluctant to go down the negative reinforcement route, and to be honest apart from food I can’t positively reinforce in a way that interests him! He doesn’t really like scratches or pats, and while voice praise is nice, it’s not enough for him without something to back it up.

So for the moment I’m just going to keep trying from the saddle, and accept that this is not an easy thing for him to learn, so it’s not going to just happen. At some point in the future I’m sure we’ll be allowed treats again and we’ll resume clicker training. Until then, work in the saddle is pretty exciting and we have plenty of challenges!

Riding

I’ve updated you on the vet visit, the inside of my head and on my holiday, but not what I am doing in the saddle.

In part this has been because I haven’t wanted to jinx it and in part because although I am working purposefully with him I haven’t really articulated even to myself why it is that I’m working this way.

In early December I told you that “I want to have a horse who is able and willing to let me control any leg/shoulder/quarter in lower gaits before I ask for the canter.” That’s the heart of the matter. Examining it I find I want the whole dressage shebang before I even ask for that canter: obedience, suppleness, straightness, connection and strength (yes I know that last isn’t a dressage buzzword but without strength in the right muscles you can’t do anything properly). The classical dressage goals of longevity of ridden life and training of the athletic horse are exactly what I want for Drifter. While we may do another competitive dressage test one day that’s not a target, so whether we ever master movements required at different levels is irrelevant. I want to train my horse to be strong, well and sound, if the fates will allow. Other things are of limited relevance.

So that’s the goal, but how am I actually going about it? In walk, mostly. Walk is where we’ve spent so much of our ridden time in the past years, between my health and his, but there’s a wealth of things to do in walk. The great gift in walk is time. Time to correct, time to react, time to breathe. We are working on doing everything correctly in walk. I have never worked walk like this, and I wonder if D ever has either. We do a lot of shapes in the school in walk but the most useful one is a walk spiralling from 20 m inwards and then out again. How small we end up varies from day to day – some times neither of us is on our A game – but we’re working it hard. It is hard to explain how difficult we find it to do this properly. For starters it is years since anyone asked him properly to work this way and he’s coming back from being lame in 3 legs (although not all at once) so doing this hard thing the way I suggest is a bit hard to understand as well as to execute. For my part I have never trained a horse before this one, and have only previously ridden this exercise not-particularly-well on this horse or on wonky school horses. While I can sometimes feel what’s wrong, I don’t have experience of what it’s supposed to be like.

We’re also having lessons again! We had one on the dressage instructor’s first teaching day of the year (Sunday) and it was fab. Being a bit nervous of doing anything too far off D’s working routine I only booked a 30 min lesson but from next time we’ll go for the 45 min. (which is officially the only time slot this instructor offers). As I started out by telling the instructor my mission statement we mostly worked in walk, with a little bit of (very nice) trotting at the end. We worked on halting (which was still awful because it’s one thing I never work on) and then on leg yield. Drifter tends to rush off forwards, barging through my hands, to avoid leg yielding, so one of the things I learnt was to try putting him at 45 degrees to the wall of the school and moving along the track like that. He was unimpressed but at least with a wall in front of his face he couldn’t hurry forwards. It was hard but I liked it. Most things I’ve tried with him that I’ve never done before, like riding shoulder fore, he doesn’t immediately get what I want, and then it clicks. More of a rider aid issue than a horse training/ability issue. But with leg yield I feel like it might be a new concept for him as well as for me. But that’s why we need lessons! It might be worth playing with leg-yield in hand to help him understand what it’s about.

I have to tell you, we have now cantered on several occasions. Never more than about 20 m on each rein in any single session, but it was quietly good. My rule for him is that he’s not allowed to work in trot until the walk is excellent, with hind legs stepping under, with straightness and obedience and feeling totally warmed up and focussed. Then we trot, and it’s usually great because all the right muscles are already working and he’s in a lovely shape and we’ve established that falling in/out is not acceptable and that he has to have contact in both reins, not just his preferred left. By the time we trot, I feel like we’ve already done the hard work and everything is just beautiful. This was confirmed in the lesson, where the trot immediately got compliments from the instructor who isn’t the time to give a compliment for nothing. The trot is so easy to ride when the walk work was great. We aren’t doing a great deal of work in trot, almost just enjoying a little as a break from walk work and then going back to walk. Except when we canter. And because the trot is great, the canter depart can’t help but come from the right place, so we have a very brief controlled canter and stop. Perfect for building up confidence. For now, that’s all we need.

So the plan for the immediate future is to work at walking all the things and learn to leg-yield in walk; to trot for fun, beauty and lightness, gradually increasing the duration there so we get a little cardio; to pop into canter briefly to remember that it exists.

And I’m pretty excited by it. The trot that we’re getting by not working in trot is the best trot I’ve ever ridden. The canter is really not bad, considering our track record there. And the walk holds all the challenges we can think up.

Back scratches and making circles in the sandpit

wpid-20150406_113621.jpgDrifter has missed me. After my last holiday I told you that on my return he was interested in grooming me, which is not usual for him. After this one he groomed me a lot. I have never before been groomed by this horse unless I happened to be standing in a place where he could do so without making much effort, and never for more than a minute or so. Now he will maintain it for ages, and continue, twisting round so he can still reach me while I move down his body towards the tail. It’s nice to be appreciated! I dare say one I’ve been back a week or so he’ll stop bothering, but for now it’s rather nice.

He doesn’t seem girthy, which he always has after previous holidays, which was a pleasant surprise and although he refused to open his mouth for the bit the first time I tacked him up, since then he has been obliging. Obviously when he is ridden by staff they can’t observe all the little routines and rituals a horse and owner establish, but it’s good to see he hasn’t been as affected by them this time.

Under saddle he seems well. He feels ready to work. There’s a little edge of Spring energy giving him a slightly more questioning attitude, but it’s in no way detrimental to a good ride. And as for me, I feel ready for work too, albeit from a very different direction. He is physically strong and needs work to shed a little extra weight, direct the energy and develop his movement and skills.  I am physically weak, and need work to build strength and fitness and I wouldn’t mind shedding a little weight myself. His cardiac system has not been challenged much recently by anything. My cardiac system has recovered from the viral/post-viral symptoms, but is seriously unfit from lack of exercise. The positive side of my physical weakness is that I’ve shed a lot of bad riding habits which came from using strong muscles to let weak ones hide. When all the muscles are as proportionally weak as each other, it is far easier to use them all properly, and ride with less resistance and less one-sided-ness. Also, because nothing feels normal/automatic, it’s easier to evaluate the style and effectiveness of the way you ride.

So we had a lesson, making circles in the sandpit (i.e. dressage) which went as follows:

Once we had a reasonable walk established we worked on stopping. This is the instructor who pointed out that there is no point us trying to work on getting a pretty, square halt until we have a predictable ability to stop somewhere vaguely near where I’d like to stop, with no unasked for rein-backs, turns, ploughing on regardless, etc. So we worked on walk, ask him to stop, and the second he stops get him to walk on again so there is no time for him to start moving legs in unwanted patterns. This one is still a work in progress.

After that we worked on getting a nice trot, getting a nice rhythm and getting him working from his lazy back-end. We got some compliments, which was nice. Then we moved on to trot spiralling slowly between a 20 m and 7 m circle. I used to do trot spirals on lesson horses and when I first got Drifter I assumed I would work him on trot spirals, but they were so hard for him I had no chance of doing anything even roughly recognisable with. In this lesson, for the first time we had good, controlled spiralling, with the back-end leading the inward/outward movement, with good connection between all of him and all of me, on both reins! There was a moment on the right rein where I completely lost it but I got it all back. In fact there were lots of moments where we lost things a little and then got them back. This delights me because it suggests I will be able to repeat it on our own without the instructor because I am working by feel, not by what I am told to do.

Once I was completely exhausted by the trot spirals it was time to canter. And canter from a sitting trot. I know that’s a skill most riders pick up in their first 6 months of riding, but for me this is massive news. I cantered, several times in each direction, from a sitting trot. This means a) I now have a sitting trot that’s good enough a horse can cope with it without losing the plot b) I now can not only manage that sitting trot, but also maintain it while I engage brain and limbs to give the canter aids and c) I can do all of the above with someone watching and do it when asked. This suggests d) I may be over the mental block that meant when someone said, “Sitting trot” I used to hear, “Clench every muscle, panic, flail and consider stopping breathing.”

He said “Sit.” I sat. Not with any great style and flair, but well enough get the job done. He said “Canter.” I got over my surprise and, after a little mental delay, cantered. And then we did it a few more times, changed the rein and repeated. I cannot believe I got it right every time. Obviously some were better than others and there was one where I gave a massive leg aid by accident and got a correspondingly massive reaction, but every single time I was asked to sit and then canter, I sat and then cantered. I can’t really believe it. And while we were cantering we still had connection, most of the time. We still had steering from the outside rein, mostly, although I had to fight for it. We still had respect for my inside leg and a back-end that was doing at least its share of the work.

We did well. We did really unprecedentedly well. This instructor is quiet with his praise and with his criticism, but I can’t remember ever having heard him say “Good” so many times in one session with anyone. Perhaps he was in a generous mood, but I think in this lesson we laid down a new circle in the sand for the way we want to dressage.

The “feel” that I learnt when I could only ride in walk; the rude health of my spring beastie; the relaxed mind from my holiday; the pleasure of being back with my/his own horse/human; the readiness to work from both of us – it all came together and we dressaged like … like … like us, dammit, but better!

Lee Pearson and the long-bodied mare

On Lee Pearson’s lesson day I’d said I wouldn’t hang around the yard hoping I’d get a chance to see him, and I didn’t. I didn’t have any reason to because not long after I’d arrived on the yard a friend who was about to go in for her ‘Leeson’ invited me to come and watch. So I did.

He was running slightly late and we came in to the tail end of the previous lesson. I lurked in the corner, keeping out of the way until Lee spotted me. ‘l don’t have you down for a lesson, do I?’ he called. I went over to his corner of the school where he was seated in his white Landrover to talk to him. l explained that I was having some health issues and couldn’t ride. He said that although ‘paras’ don’t usually let the able bodied turn in a sick note he’d let me off this time. I asked if it was OK to watch the lesson and he was very encouraging and welcoming. l retreated to my corner and sat on the mounting block out of the way.

As usual the atmosphere was distinctly jovial and nothing was taken too seriously. There was banter about drinking champagne from pint glasses and about an innuendo that had Lee laughing his head off at the WEG in the warm up area. He remembered and teased the riders about things they’d said in previous lessons.

Also seated in the car with Lee was another dressage paralympian: Ricky Balshaw. Seated beside Lee, anyone seems quiet; so too did he, but he has a smile like the sun coming out.

The friend having the lesson is a small lady with a big long-bodied event mare. The problem she asked to work on was that in tests with a lot of canter she can’t get the downwards transition to trot when she needs it. The main focus of the way Lee approached this was by working on the nature of their canter; taking it from a long strided cross-county type canter (that the mare likes) to a collected canter (which she doesn’t). He encouraged my friend to add more ‘hand’ to her leg-hand balance and to rebuke her mare for powering on rudely through downward transitions. He had them work in a much slower canter than they are used to.

Every horse and human works hard in a lesson with Lee. That is a given. Neither horse nor human are allowed to get away with the bad habits they may not even know they had. Consequently you get a lot of sweat from both species. What I had not realised before is that you also get a lot of shocked expressions from both as well!

My favorite part of the lesson was when the rider was getting to grips with not letting her horse get away with rudely ploughing through downwards transition. After a couple of transitions where she didn’t get away with it I saw the moment where the mare’s eye suddenly changed as she realised that things had changed and she wasn’t going to be allowed to do that any more. The next downwards transition was perfectly obedient.

lt was fascinating to see the vast improvement over the 45 minutes. By the end they looked so different; the long horse looked so much shorter and the outline was lovely. It’s a shame that even with mirrors a rider can’t see what eyes on the ground can. I wonder whether next time I have a lesson with Lee perhaps I could get my husband to video it, assuming Lee is OK with that.

Unexpected calm

Unexpected calm no. 1

Today I ought to have been competing 3 dressage tests, two locally created ones and one British Dressage prelim. Unfortunately there were too few entries for it to go ahead. It was cancelled on Thursday, leaving me feeling rather flat. Around the edges of my holiday I’d put a lot of effort into preparing for it. Even on holiday the crochet ear bonnet I worked on was a white one for the show, not one for everyday use. But on the other hand it was a relief not to have to fling myself into dressing up, plaiting and getting competitive.

So on Thursday when we knew it wasn’t going ahead, I booked a lesson for Sunday instead. With a different instructor.

To give some background, this instructor is a dressage specialist. Even when we were a riding school he was set apart somewhat from the other instructors. His pricing and lesson times worked differently from every other instructor. This gave me the impression that you needed to ride to have lessons with him. Recently I’ve discovered that he does accept low-level riders, but even so, I needed to feel like I was doing well before I could approach him about a lesson.

Additionally I felt bad taking money out of my previous regular instructor’s pocket. That’s not gone away, but I don’t think anyone could really blame me for spending my lesson money wherever I think will give us the best return on that investment.

Anyway, when I heard there was no show on Sunday, it encouraged me to book a lesson with him instead.

I was nervous. Everyone told me he was not a scary instructor, but all new things are scary, so I remained nervous.

So we got to our lesson. And it was

Unexpected calm no. 2

It’s not true to say that I’ve never had a riding lesson that calm. My early lessons with The-Original-Instructor-Who-Left were extremely calm. But I wasn’t really achieving much in those lesson besides learning to sit on a horse, stop, go and steer. Today I had a lesson where I learnt a lot, achieved plenty and learnt new ways of working and thinking about transitions, but there was pretty much no tension.

I don’t mean that D never set his head against my hand, because there were moments when he did; I don’t mean that everything was easy, because it wasn’t. But everything was calm. Even the cantering was calm. Mostly. 😉

This has set up a mental dissonance in me.

I am not used to being taught to ride with calmness. Much as I try to resist the phrases I overhear such as “Pull his back teeth out,” “Whack it,” or “Kick its ribs in,” from other riders and other instructors, the culture seeps into me until it feels like riding with force and an aggressive mindset is the only way to achieve goals. Today I was shown a way to ride that is much more in keeping with my philosophy of riding and horse care.

And I’m ashamed to say I missed the adrenaline rush. I missed the tension of an instructor yelling at me to do more. I missed the adrenaline covering the tiredness and I missed the feeling that D and I had been pushed to our limits.

But I missed it like you miss a bad habit you know needs to be broken. Have I ever ridden this horse calmly like that? Probably not.

So what did we do in the lesson?

I find it harder to remember because it wasn’t punctuated with exhaustion and stress.

I remember that we discussed warming up, and the arc of a schooling session and I said I could use some advice on structuring a session or a warmup. He suggested using the pattern of a large circle at one end of the school, then circle in the middle and at the other end before changing the rein and doing the three circles again.

I learnt that my weight is often too much to the right. Oh for goodness sake will I never be done with sitting too much to one side? I used to be always too much to the left. But it was useful and made sense and things worked better once I was conscious of it.

We worked on transitions, of course, but with a great deal more finesse than I’ve been shown before. Basically, D likes trot above all other gaits, so it’s hard to get him out of trot into walk. If he catches on that we’re doing walk/trot transitions he’ll resist the walk as long as he can, then rush a few steps of walk before trotting again if I so much as breathe. This leads to me hanging on the reins a lot, and to be honest although I’m not happy with this, no other instructor has objected or suggested a different approach.

Today hanging onto the reins was not permitted. I had to have soft hands that kept moving through the transition as well as keeping my leg on. As you would expect it mostly took me longer to get the walk, but we got there, and it was more pleasant. It is going to take work to get this happening faster and consistently, but it’s going to be worth it.

Of course we did some cantering. The instructor asked for canter when we were in quite a calm trot. It wasn’t the kind of rev-ed up trot we usually canter from, but I did as I was told and we got some pretty nice canters. I’m banned from cantering full circuits of the schools; it must be circles, circles, circles to encourage him to balance and slow down. Which is pretty much what we were doing anyway.

Throughout the lesson and particularly at the end he was great at explaining things. Here’s an example, reduced to the salient points I remember.

  • Cobs like D are built in such a way that it is natural to them to pull from their shoulders and front legs, but for dressage we need to convince a horse to push from the back legs
  • When a horse prepares for a transition by throwing up its head and hollowing its back that shows that it’s preparing to initiate the trot from the front of the body.
  • At that point if you are quick enough you can bring it back and wait, because that’s not the way you want the trot to start
  • When the transition comes from the back legs the neck and back will round, and that is what you want, so go ahead and trot.
  • Eventually what appears to be a single transition can be made up of many tiny almost-transitions to get the good one

Clearly this is not going to happen overnight, but I like lessons that give me plenty to work on on my own. 😀

The weekend’s riding has really not been what I expected. Instead of the stress of competition I’ve had a really calm lesson. It’s given me a lot to think about. Calm doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s a good few years since I found I couldn’t do a guided relaxation after a yoga class because I couldn’t allow the quiet calm into my head, but this lesson has reminded me of that time. I had no idea my riding-thoughts were so un-calm that this would feel like an issue.

I suppose I’m disappointed in myself for having let riding with tension become a part of my mindset. And also because I see now that a lot of the progress we’ve made lately has not been done in the best way. I look at the riders on the yard who use the most tension and conflict with their horses and I don’t want to ride like that, but I think it’s been creeping in without my realising.

We need a reduction in tension and an increase in calm. That way lies contentment for horse and rider. That way lies mental stability for horse and rider. That way lies a relationship and communication and the true spirit of dressage.

What of the “pull his teeth out” riders? Let King Lear have the last words:

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;

No more of that.

Private jump lesson no. 2

It wasn’t a very promising start. I knew my lesson was in the indoor school but when I turned up it seemed to be full of other horses, other riders and even other instructors. One of the other instructors ushered me in, breezily saying that because of the weather we were sharing the indoor school. I was not given any choice in this despite personally being of the opinion that if I do not have the private use of the school I should not pay the full usual price. Whenever this has happened in the past I’ve been phoned ahead of time and been given the choice of sharing or cancelling the lesson and always chosen to cancel. This time I had no choice and it looked like we’d be sharing the 20 x 40 m school with 2 other “private” lessons.

I led him in and found a spot to remove his rug and tighten the girth, etc., but before I’d had a chance to undo the rug the lights went out and we were pitched into total darkness. With 4 horses in the school, 2 of which were being controlled by children, jumps everywhere and no one sure what to do, it was not the best situation to be in. I was not hopeful that the lesson would go ahead at that point. At first it was assumed to be a power cut but the owner stuck her head out of the door and saw lights on in her house still, so it appeared to be a blown fuse. One of the children had her phone in her pocket and the LED torch app was used to locate the fusebox and eventually find the switches. And we had light! Everybody settle down.

It was actually really lucky that the fuse blew at that point – at the end of the previous lesson and before ours had begun. One lady in the lesson before had been jumping massive oxers and had the lights gone out while she was jumping that would have been a pretty undesirable situation, her horse being a little on the lively side.

It turned out that actually we were only sharing with one other lesson – there had been two sharing previously so one instructor and two horses/riders were leaving.

After the inauspicious start we got ready and got to work.  I had decided to take the crop to the lesson although I wasn’t confident that I’d manage it well. We warmed up and he went quite nicely.

I found it quite awkward warming up with another rider and another instructor to avoid as well as the jumps, but my instructor took me out of open order quite quickly and directed me in and out between the jumps which meant that I was mostly using the middle of the school while the other rider had the track. As we went on I barely registered the other rider or instructor and actually didn’t feel I lost out on anything by them being there. I did feel guilty afterwards that we probably dominated the school and the other lesson couldn’t do that much except go large, but then I was jumping and she wasn’t, so that probably couldn’t have been avoided. Anyway, I have to admit the sharing was managed well and, contrary to my expectations, didn’t reduce the value of my lesson in any way.

Before we started any jumping my instructor had me ride the lines I would need to get to particular jumps but then go past the jumps, so when it came to do it for real I’d already know at what point I needed to start turning.  This was useful because when I came to jump I was already confident in where I was going.

Holding my excited horse with the new shorter reins and managing the crop was making my hands hurt, so I shed the whip at that point.

We spent almost all of the lesson jumping from trot, and we jumped a lot. I think I’m now as comfortable jumping from the trot as from the canter. I managed to keep my reins at a much more useful length than I have in the past and at all times I had full control of him. We steered tight turns (by our standards!), we stayed together and we were mostly well balanced. The jumps were all very small and he jumped economically – I don’t think we had a single unnecessarily large jump in the whole session.

In short, we were amazing 😀

The instructor was very impressed by the improvement.

I have to say I was too, although I was less surprised by it than she was. It was so many miles better than the previous lesson only 6 days before, but every workout in between had been focused on rein length and it had paid off. I’d also been googling rein length and found some useful ideas. This Yahoo answer was really helpful:

My former instructor used to say “your (closed) fingers hold the mouth, your thumbs hold the reins.” As you get farther along in riding, you’ll realise that your fingers don’t actually hold the mouth, your back does, but for now fingers will work. The thumb should be the digit that keeps the reins from slipping.

That was the main idea that really changed things for me. I’d heard so many times, “Thumbs on top,” but nothing that had ever suggested to me that the thumb should be doing anything except resting there. I was holding with the bottom finger. Once I tried this it made so much sense and I totally got what she means about the back holding the mouth.

Another really useful concept came from the Chronicle of the Horse Forums:

I took a lesson with IMHO the best dressage instructor in my area and she told me to imagine that the reins went through my hands, up over my shoulders and down my back so that they buttoned to my beltloops behind me, like suspenders, and now steer with my shoulders, torso and hips.

Between those two ideas I had a whole new way of thinking about my reins and my back in relation to them. I focused on my thumbs and my back, not on my fingers. And it worked. Of course Drifter is missing his old “do-what-you-like” rein length (that he used to get because I couldn’t stop the reins slipping through my fingers) and does work at trying to take them back off me, so the week has been full of argument between us over this point. My instructor says I should decide how long to make them and stick to it. Then it’s his job to work nicely to that boundary. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. No one likes new restrictions or working harder, but both are good for him. Sometimes he does manage to pull the reins longer, but now I’m tuned in to the role of my thumb I’m much less susceptible.

I think we’re on a good path here.

I was interested to see that after working him in shorter reins we do actually get some small amount of stretch (and no head tossing) when I lengthen the reins and ask for free walk on a long rein. I knew that if the horse is working properly that stretch should happen naturally but won’t if they aren’t (but couldn’t work out how to get him to work better), so this is a good sign that he’s working better in the short reins than he was before.

I won’t be having a jump lesson next week because a) D should be seeing the physio so he’ll be on light duties midweek and b) I can’t afford a jump lesson as well as my next Lee Pearson lesson. He’s coming back a week tomorrow! Ever since we booked in for a second session with him I’ve been secretly fearful that on the day he won’t see much improvement in us, but now I’m confident that even if we have a really, really bad day next Saturday he should still see a massive improvement since we last saw him in December.

Is sitting trot the opposite of jumping?

I didn’t jump this weekend. Instead I did some sitting trot, attempting to stay glued into the saddle rather than lifting up out of it. Drifter would rather jump; having watched the jump class I’m really glad we didn’t!

I’d officially declared we were not doing the jump class, so on Saturday we just had a quiet ride – an easy little walk-trot-canter for 20 min. He was not moving well or willingly and I was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to do much in the biomechanics session on Sunday. I timed my ride to be just before the jump class so I’d be around to watch and pick up on the theory as a spectator even if I couldn’t do anything practical.

I glued myself to the fence, ready to learn. After the warmup and a basic little cross pole the instructor warned everyone that the lesson would be a challenge in the steering department. The single concept of the lesson was to jump, weave around two cones and then jump again on the other side. It was tight. Over the course of the lesson more jumps and cones were added until by the end it became a course of jump – weave – jump – weave – jump – jump.

My brain immediately and firmly told me that this was impossible. It carried on telling me this despite watching all of the horse/rider pairs in the lesson complete it, mostly with success. I have never tried weaving between cones at anything faster than a walk, so I’m not sure how I would have got on with that part of it even without the jumps either side of the weave sections. Adding that to the fact that I hadn’t been getting enough steering to ride a straight line or a circle predictably I was so relieved that I’d decided we weren’t up to the lesson. Definitely the right choice!

It was a scary lesson to watch. One adult hit the ground, but he fell nicely and apparently had no injuries beyond a little shoulder stiffness. Another adult almost came unstuck and the kids had a few iffy moments. At least on the ponies there was more room between the cones, proportionally, that there was on the big horses.

At the end of the lesson I asked about cone spacing so I can try cones myself one evening (without the jumping to worry about). The answer was not that helpful, but we were urged to have a go with different spacings, starting with a wide spacing in trot.

On Sunday we had a session with Russell Guire of Centaur Biomechanics. This was the third time I’d had a session with him but only the second time on Drifter (the first was on a school horse). If you’d like to read/re-read the post about our previous session it’s here. I was concerned that Drifter wouldn’t be up to it – that I wouldn’t be able to get anything useful out of it, but actually he was moving pretty well. The day before I’d been really struggling to get anything much in the way of forwardness, correct bend, staying out on the track rather than falling in, etc., but on Sunday although I needed a lot more leg than usual, he was a lot more willing. I suspect that having had Friday off had made him stiffen but riding on Saturday did him good even though it didn’t feel positive at the time.

So we started the session with me updating Russell on what we’d been working on since we saw him last (canter, canter and more canter) and what I’d like to work on today (sitting trot). When I had the session with him on the school horse nearly two years ago he helped a lot with my sitting trot, but with Drifter I’ve only started trying to sit recently. (Before that whenever I tried he’d stick his head in the air and try to run off, which was not conducive to my learning, and strongly discouraged me from taking my stirrups away.)

Of course as usual the advice was to lean back. I have heard this advice from so many people and from my periodic googling of how to learn to sit the trot. So I tried and as usual I felt that the movement throws me forward and I cannot sit back against the force of the throwing forwards. He asked me what I felt, I described that and he agreed that was exactly what was happening.

It turned out though, that if you tell me to lean back, what you get is a leaning back from my back and neck. To me, that’s what lean back means. As a child gymnast I could lean back like that until my hands touched the floor and then kick over through handstand or pull my hands back up as I chose. Apparently that’s not the kind of leaning back that is required. As soon as I figured out, with Russell’s help, that this kind of leaning back doesn’t come from the back at all but from the pelvis, I had a little lightbulb moment. It will still take a lot of practice for me to find the right lean back every time and do it without tightening my legs or anything else unnecessary, but I have hope now that I’ll be able to do it.

I have to admit though, that I find the slow-mo footage of my attempts at sitting trot too cringe-making to share on the internet. The sight of a bottom squashing repeatedly against the saddle is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. And so the only clip I’m offering you is a short full speed one in rising trot and a little canter. In this you can clearly see too much arch in the lower back where my pelvis needs to be more tucked under to minimise the bottom, both for performance and vanity’s sakes 😉 In a later canter I successfully corrected this and suddenly felt I had a great deal more control of the canter speed. So it looks like the session on sitting trot will actually end up improving my jumping as well.

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Video by Russell Guire of Centaur Biomechanics