#fivethingsFriday – Riding Edition

  • Things have been going pretty well lately with my riding. So well, actually, that I haven’t posted anything about them because there hasn’t been a lot to say beyond, “Damn, that was awesome!” Cinnamon and I have been working more on being straight and forward. Cinn walks like a drunken sailor half the time, largely because he is trying to cut in to the center of the ring and…you know, stop working. If you drop his inside rein for a second, he’s got his nose to the middle and he’s swerving. For most of his problems, forward is the answer, because if he’s forward, he doesn’t have time for shenanigans. Unfortunately, he doesn’t like to go forward because, well, then he won’t have time for shenanigans.

This photo is my favorite. We’re prepping for a halt.

  • A couple of weeks ago, I was cantering Cinn, and it was probably one of our better trips around the ring. As we went around, he stumbled, and my reins came out of my hands. Rather than panic – which is usually my first reaction – I just collected my reins up and kept going. I didn’t even realize what had happened until all of a sudden, I heard my trainer yell, “Good girl, keep going!” Truth be told, my lessons have been exponentially better after that little confidence boost.

 

Ignore the stupid face I’m making. I was joking with my trainer. Focus on the pony.

 

  • Last week, I rode Suzie, because Cinnamon had had a show with the younger girls earlier in the day (and apparently did very well – they brought home a Champion, a Reserve Champion, and something like four firsts and a smattering of seconds). I love Cinn, but Sue is such a pleasure. She’s forward on her own, and I don’t constantly have to get after her to make her move. Also? When I ask her to canter, she does it. It takes Cinn a while, partially because he’s lazy, but also partially because when he came to my trainer several years ago, he was a retired – and poorly trained – gaming and barrel horse. He apparently had no conception of how to canter under saddle, and consequently still struggles with balancing himself, particularly to the right.
  • My trainer was so pleased with the way I cantered on Suzie that I’m going to be alternating between her and Cinnamon for a while. Cinn is always my favorite buddy, but I’m really learning to enjoy Sue. She’s quirky in her own way – very skin sensitive (brush her gently and quickly), she has to chew on her halter before you put her bridle on, and she basically has ADHD; she hates to stand still. But under saddle, she’s responsive and willing, and a better babysitter than I’d expect for an 18-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred mare who used to be a lunatic show jumper.

 

Ugh, I love this guy.

 

  • Still can’t hit my effing diagonals. I can get them maybe 60% of the time, but at least I’m starting to know when I’m wrong?
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#firstbootproblems

Equestrian confession: I have never owned a pair of tall boots. I’ve never needed them. Up until the last three months, I never thought I would need them because I didn’t want to show.

However, I do need new boots in some fashion. My paddock boots are old and beat up, and the suede half chaps I bought last year are getting there as well. When I told my trainer that I was in the market for new boots, she suggested I get tall boots because they’d last longer than my half chaps and I could show in them, since I’ve now decided that’s a thing I want to try. So on Saturday, I went boot shopping.

On the recommendation of my trainer and also general good sense because their return policy is awesome, I went to Dover. I explained to the lovely and helpful salesgirl that I had ridiculously muscular calves and thought I might be a tough fit, that I knew nothing about tall boots, and that I’d like something in the $200-$250 range that was appropriate for schooling-to-show. The girl gave my legs the once-over and said, “You should be fine to fit. We’ll try a regular medium calf.”

You should know where this is going by now.

Several pairs of boots (and several skin-pinches) later, we had only found one pair of boots that even remotely fit my leg properly. It’s what the girl called a “sock style” boot, meaning that the leather was incredibly soft and hugs the leg like a second skin. They were actually super comfortable, except for the fact that they were a dress boot (rather than a field boot) and I couldn’t really bend my ankle. The salesgirl swore the boots would stretch and allow my ankle to bend, but she also told me that the stock-style boots don’t have a break-in period, and those two things seemed contradictory. The other issue is that the leather of the boot was so soft that I really think that the fit of the boot wouldn’t be maintained past a few months; once it broke in properly, the boots would probably drop and bag, just like my regular “going-out” boots that I wear to work.

You can just tell these will sag after a few good rides. Also you can see all the “fallen soldier” boots behind me that just didn’t fit.
Bagging was the issue in general: because my ankles are so slender (8 inches in diameter) compared to my calves (15.75 inches standing, 16.25 sitting), what fits me in one place logically doesn’t fit me in the other. The girl at Dover told me I’d probably need a custom boot, which, with wedding payments and general living, isn’t a possibility right now, especially when I don’t even know if I’ll like showing. We tried a leather half-chap with a zip-up paddock boot, but I had the problem again with the bagging in the ankle.

My trainer seems less concerned about my boot-shopping woes than I am. She says to go boot shopping with her next time, and we’ll find something – boot or half-chap – that works. Right now, we’re both on the same page: lace-up paddock boots (because I’ll get a better fit and more mobility through my ankle) and a decent leather half-chap are probably the way to go.

The hunt continues.

Dor-sahj lessons

dressageABCs

(That is how my fiancé refers to what I’m learning in my riding lessons. “Hon, I can’t tell who’s doing dor-sahj and who’s not. It all looks the same to me.”

“I’m sorry, who’s doing what now?”

“Dor-sahj. Isn’t that what you’re learning how to do?”

“Yep. Dor-sahj. Dressage for dorks.”

Seriously, my life.)

Learning dressage on a stubborn Appaloosa who used to be a gaming horse is fun. This week, I learned:

  • My circles are actually round and the right size. Plus!
  • Cinnamon can’t or won’t (I haven’t figured out which yet) halt square to save his life. Minus.
  • I can make the stubborn Appaloosa bend! Plus.
  • I’m really, really good at getting into the corners. Big plus.
  • Roughly 90 percent of the time, I can’t make Cinnamon go with any sort of forward. But when I ask him to halt, he fights me. I mean, he halts, sort of. But he fights the contact so much, we’re literally playing tug-of-war for three minutes until he gives up and softens. Minus. Weirdo.

My trainer ran me through Intro A and Intro B in my lesson on Monday, and they were fine, halting issues notwithstanding. I could do that in a show, probably. Having been to a few local schooling-level dressage shows – which is all I have the stomach for and almost certainly all I will have the ability for – they don’t look too intimidating. Not a huge turnout, and nobody’s watching you ride but the judge, your trainer and anyone you bring as a cheering section. I could handle that. That said, I’m glad I’m taking a year to learn how to not be a hot mess in general, but on principle, it’s all stuff I can do: working trot, medium walk, free walk, circles, change rein.

I’m also stupidly excited to run through a couple of Intro tests on a stubborn, chubby Appaloosa. Not even kidding. Living the dream.

Well, that escalated quickly. 

I’ve been trying to write this since Saturday, and it’s partially not been done because this week has been crazy and it’s partially not been done because I’m so mortified that this even happened. 

I wasn’t feel one hundred percent on Saturday when I went for my lesson. Because of this “keto flu”, my brain was super foggy and I was having a hard time even tacking up. I had to do the girth twice because I started on the wrong side (herp derp, I swear I know how a girth goes), and it took me like five tries to put one of Cinn’s boots on in the right place. 

The first 50 minutes of my ride were pretty good: lots of serpentines, bending, sitting trot. I even hit all of my diagonals like a big girl. 

And then we cantered. 

In retrospect, I should have probably told my trainer I wasn’t fit to canter. I didn’t feel dizzy or otherwise ill, but I was foggy, and I think being so “on” for the serpentines and diagonals used up what brainpower I had. But I love cantering, and I’m finally getting good (this week notwithstanding), so I set up and pushed Cinn forward. 

It was bad from go. My reins were too long, my leg wasn’t under me properly, and I hadn’t managed to get Cinnamon started from his hind end, so he kind of flailed around on his forehand. There’s one part of the ring where he likes to fall in toward the center, and by the time we got there, I’d lost it. My reins were too long, I had no contact, and I couldn’t steer – and I wasn’t. I also wasn’t thinking too clearly, so rather than just try to collect my reins and fix it, I became a passenger. 

There was a point where my choice was to haul on Cinnamon’s mouth to either pull him up or drag him around a turn, or we could jump a tiny cross rail that was directly in our path.

We jumped the cross rail. 

Really, it would have been fine, except that Cinnamon had no preparation to jump and so he had to really chip in to get over the thing. The landing was understandably rocky and so when I felt myself falling, I kicked my feet out of the stirrups and bailed. 

It was seriously not one of more stellar performances. I known I can ride better than that. Poor Cinn, he’s such a good guy – he probably was like, “Human, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but you seem to want to jump the thing and I like you, so we’ll jump the thing.” If nothing else, that showed me how much I can trust that horse, which is nice, but he definitely deserves for me to sit up and ride him like I have a clue. 

I’m riding Saturday and Monday (assuming I don’t get rained out) so I’ll have two chances for redemption. 

Twinkle twinkle

As you may have gathered from the lack of post, I did not ride on Sunday. Most of New Jersey experienced some crazy winds (I think I heard up to 70 mph in some places?), and my trainer decided that the horses were too riled to ride. Normally I’m quite put out when the weather forces a lesson cancellation, but since breaking my elbow, I was in total agreement that riding was a poor choice. Turned out, it wasn’t just lessons that were cancelled – no one rode that day.

We did reschedule my lesson for today. I was back on Cinnamon and off the lunge, which was nice. As it turns out, my few weeks with Susie doing all that reinless lunge work did wonders for my riding. My shoulders were much more even, my posting was worlds better (from the knee even!), and my leg was excellent. Riding Sue really helped me be more mindful with Cinn, too. Susie is more high-energy and forward than Cinnamon, and because she’s more sensitive to slight changes, I’m more focused on my aids with her. Cinnamon needs that too, but for different reasons. He is a consummate lesson horse, in that he looks for any reason to pull one over on an unsuspecting rider. Cinn isn’t bad, but he’s lazy. Case in point, I learned tonight that if I overlook my turns and my eye off his head, Cinnamon will try to duck out in the opposite direction than I want to go. Figuring that out taught me to make sure I can see at least one ear all the time. Sneaky pony.

All that is to say, my riding was better. Rather than being a passenger (which is my default when I’m focusing on something), I rode that horse every step of the way tonight. Doing a circle? Bend him with the outside leg and catch him with the outside rein if he tries to cut out. Just trotting a long side? Half-halt and send him forward, because his mind wanders and then he pulls shenanigans. My trainer said that my rising trot was better than she’d ever seen it, which is huge. One thing we really did work on was my breathing. I’m what my trainer calls a “conscious breather,” which essentially means that I exhale rather forcefully and it almost makes me sound as though I’m doing lamaze. It also wears me down quickly and makes me out of breath when I really should not be. That said, when I’m thinking about something else, like when someone’s talking to me, I breathe normally. So to help that process along, my trainer asked me to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for two laps around at a rising trot.

With a ring full of about five people. You know, like you do.

The end result of all of that was that we had a really excellent lesson. So excellent, in fact, that I was rewarded with a couple of canter laps at the end of my ride. I haven’t cantered since before my fall, which was at the end of November. And it felt awesome.

On a different note, I realize I talk about riding a lot here. Part of that is because it’s something I’m really actively working on, and part of that is because it happens more or less every week. Reflecting on my lessons is a habit that I think is really helping me improve my riding, and I’m glad I’m doing it.

That said, I also do other things, like knit. I’m hoping to get a post up in a few days explaining my top “Six in Sixteen,” or the six projects I’ve decided I really want to finish before the end of the calendar year. I have plans.

What’re those tiny arms for? Playing piano?

Last week, I had the chance to take a “comp day,” which is where they give you a day off for working extra hours instead of paying you overtime. I’m salaried (hallelujah), but I’ve been working overtime – until 10 PM some nights, and when you start at 7:30 AM, that’s no joke – so I was only too happy to take a day off. And because I was already exhausted and overtired, I did the only sensible thing.

I scheduled an extra riding lesson.

My goal is to start taking two lessons a week regularly once we’re done paying for the wedding, because we’re currently setting aside so much for this shindig that after the fact, I’ll be able to spring for an extra lesson every week and we won’t even feel the teeny little dent it will make. I figured that since I had a day off and I’d been particularly stressed out, I’d treat myself to a second ride and see how it felt to ride twice in a week and whether it helped my riding.

The short answer: it felt amazing and it helped a ton.

I have learned a variety of things in the last few weeks. Since we’ve been doing the balance work on the lunge and focusing on getting my legs in the right place, several things have come to light, including a few habits that a.) I didn’t know I had, and/or b.) weren’t there before I broke my elbow. First of all, I have no flexibility in my calves. None. I have to start trying to limber them up throughout the week, because riding with my legs in proper position kills me. Kills. Me. In fact, on Sunday, I dismounted after my ride, like you do – and promptly sat down softly in the arena sand, completely involuntarily. My legs were just like, “Yeah, we still haven’t regained feeling, so we’re just going to go now, bye,” and I just…buckled and sat. My trainer took one look at me and cracked up. I am nothing if not entertaining.

The other thing that’s weird…and I hate to even show you this photo because, first of all, I look physically horrendous. Nothing shows exactly how out of shape you are more than looking at a photo of yourself riding a horse. Secondly, my eq is horrendous – you can totally see the weirdness in my right leg if you look. But the main reason is that I have suddenly, and for no good reason, developed piano hands.

Piano hands

Seriously, my eq is terrible. I look terrible. It’s all going to get better, I hope. Also, Suzie (the mare) is very tolerant of fat-ass beginnerness.

Like, dude, for real. Look at my hand. LOOK AT IT. What is it even doing? What am I even doing? When I first started riding regularly at the end of high school, I rode with a dressage trainer. I learned “thumbs up” before just about anything. I’m going to eventually (I hope, because this photo – and its way-uglier sisters that didn’t even make it to my phone, let alone the blog – would indicate otherwise) show low-level dressage. I used to pride myself on my hands, because they were quite often one of the few things I did well. And now? Effing piano hands.

What the actual. I have no idea where that came from. It’s weird. It’s new since February, because I have pictures from the summer (well before I fell off and broke myself) and my hands are not like that. I can’t even blame it on my elbow, because that hand you can see there is my left one, and I broke my right arm.

The other thing that has been brought painfully to light is not a new issue, but it’s sort of gotten lost amidst working on all my other problems. I cannot nail a diagonal to save my life. I know how to check my diagonals. I know what to look for. But the problem is that between when my brain sees it and when my body does it, there’s a beat, and in that beat, the diagonal changes, which makes me wrong every single time. I can feel my diagonals if I’m given enough lead time – three or four strides, maybe? – but it’s so frustrating that it takes me so long to get them. I can’t tell if this is a mental block or a challenge of being an adult beginning rider or what. If any adult beginner riders passing through care to weigh in, I’d love to hear what you think. Or experienced riders, for that matter. Halp.

I’d be lying if I said some days (most days) I didn’t have a complex about the way I ride. There are girls at the barn who are 12 and 15, and even a talented little 10-year-old, who have way better heels and control and rising trots than I do. But I try to remind myself that they’ve been riding since they were five, and I have a few summers and six months of regular lessons under my belt – plus a three-month involuntary hiatus because of my elbow. And I try to remember that my rising trot might suck, but my sitting trot is effing amazing. And I tell myself that up until about a month ago, I didn’t want to show, and now all of these things – my leg and my heel and whatever else – are much more important than they used to be.

Mostly, though, I try to remember that at least I’m trying, because lots of people don’t try, and if I put the work in, I’m going to get better. I also try to remember that as scary as it is to do something and suck at it, it’s scarier not to do it at all, because this thing that I suck at? I love it a lot.

Look, no hands!

So this week in my lesson, I did the coolest thing I’ve ever done on a horse: I rode with no reins.

I realize how fundamental that sounds to someone who’s been riding forever. In fact, that was the first thing I said to my trainer when she put me on the lunge line and took away my reins: “I know that, in theory, I shouldn’t need them.” If your balance is good, you should be able to ride a well-trained horse off your seat and your leg.

The thing is, though – my balance sucks.

Also, if truth be told (and it was – several times), I was a little afraid. I was riding Suzie, a TB mare who used to be my trainer’s daughter’s primary jumper. She’s much bouncier than Cinnamon, so you don’t have to work as hard to get out of the saddle. She’s also much bigger – 16.3 to Cinn’s 15 hands, which is a good seven inches’ difference, which in my head, translated to, “Seven inches farther to fall.” It’s not that I was afraid that Sue would throw me. It’s that I was afraid that my balance would be terrible and I would tumble.

Turns out, Suzie was an excellent babysitter. Every time she felt me lean forward, she would slow down. Riding with no reins was really enlightening. I learned a bunch of stuff:

  • I instinctively lean forward when I ride, especially if I feel I’m about to fall.
  • I have a super hard time keeping my back arched properly to post the right way, hence the posting from my back and not my knees.
  • I also have a crazy hard time keeping my center of gravity low.
  • Apparently I really had no idea what any of that felt like, because my trainer would tell me to do them before and I would go, “Okay!” and then do what I thought it was, but riding with no reins really brings it all into focus.

I also learned that the way that I’m built makes it difficult for me to ride properly. I was slightly pigeon-toed as a baby, and you can still see it on my right leg. I see it all the time when I just hang out and stand. Well, apparently it’s no different in the stirrups. Because of the fact that my leg comes out of my hip weird, it wants to sit the opposite way that it should in the stirrups: with my weight on the outside of my foot. Also, it pops my right knee way out from the saddle; my trainer was able to slide her whole arm between my knee and the saddle without me moving. I think it’s fixable, but she says it will be hard to change. Joy.

What she ended up having me do was to hold the “holy shit strap” (connected to the d-rings on the saddle) with my inside hand and to make a fist with my outside hand. I needed to press the fist into my back, arch my back against the fist, and post. The first few circles on the lunge were bad. I didn’t trust myself, and I kept tumbling forward. After a while, though, I got it. Once we had a few good circles around, my trainer told me to put both hands on the strap, and shock of shocks, I was able to maintain the post without the fist. “Now put both hands on your hips!” And all of a sudden, I was posting almost effortlessly, with no pain in my back, and no freaking hands!

I knew I was grinning like a fool. It was seriously the coolest thing ever, and we’re going to do it again for the next few weeks because I really, really need to confidence and the balance.

I wonder if the fact that I’m so imbalanced makes it hard for me to find the correct diagonal when I trot. My sitting trot is amazing, but my posting trot blows, partially because of the aforementioned “posting from the back” thing, and partially because I only get my diagonals right about 30% of the time. But once I got going without my reins, I could pick up right almost every time, and I could tell almost instantly whether I had it wrong. I think next week I’m going to ask if I can tell my trainer when I think it’s right versus wrong and just see if it’s easier to feel when I’m actually positioned correctly.

I’m taking two lessons next week because I’m taking my comp day off of work to make up for all the overtime I’ve put in. I ideally want to start taking two lessons a week once we’re done paying for the wedding, so it’ll be fun to see how it feels. I can’t wait to have my reins taken away again, though. I just hope it doesn’t all fall apart when I get them back.