Friday, November 20, 2020

Left leg vs right leg - picking apart the biomechanics

I know, I seem to be doing a bunch of biomechanics posts of late, but that's where my brain is at so that's where the blog is at.

Following up on my last post about keeping my legs close is understanding how my right and left leg are different, how that affects my riding, and what I need to do to make them more even. My left leg is the stronger leg, and tends to stay more under me and doesn't brace or swing.

Let's start with the obvious differences. In these pics, I'm not actively focused on doing anything different with my legs. Let's call this "normal": 

Perhaps the most obvious difference here is the angle behind my knee - the right leg is MUCH more open than the left. You can also see that my lower right leg has slipped forward and is bracing on the stirrup - especially obvious because the stirrup leather is pushed forward instead of being perpendicular to the ground. My left thigh is brushing against the block and is parallel to it, while my right thigh is nowhere near the block, and the angle of the front of my thigh and the block are quite different. We could also discuss my pelvis here, which definitely affects the leg, but let's just focus on the leg.

Next set: I'm actively focused on "keeping my legs close."

The angle behind my knee is more even between the right and left legs, but the right knee is still more open than the left and the lower leg is still a bit braced and forward., which you can also see in the stirrup leather still being a little in front of the vertical. There's still a big gap between the block and my thigh on the right leg, but there's no gap on my left thigh (I should note that I don't ride jammed against the block, it's more the feeling of the fabric of my breeches brushing the block). So, keeping my legs close has helped a bit, but my legs still aren't as even as they should be, and the bracing on the right leg is going to (and constantly does) cause problems.

Final set: I'm actively focused on pushing my right heel away from the horse, bending my right knee, and keeping contact between the fabric of my breeches and the thigh blocks:

The behind-the-knee angles are MUCH more even here, and the right stirrup is parallel to the ground. The right thigh isn't quite parallel to the block, but there is no longer a gap between my thigh and the block.

Buuuut, I'm struggling to keep that position. You can see that my right knee has dropped down and back as I'm using my lower right leg to keep his haunches in line for the left bend. Ah well, it's a work in progress!

The biggest difference I feel when my right knee has more bend in it is that I'm not as stiff in the hip, and no longer pushing my right seatbone out of the saddle. Keeping my right thigh on has the added benefit of making me more stable in the saddle, especially during transitions, which is when I like to brace the most.

Which of your legs is stronger? Do you notice an imbalance between your legs, and if so, in what ways, and how does it affect your riding?

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Keep your legs close

I tend to ride with my leg off the horse. From the hip all the way down.

This isn't to say I don't USE my leg and seat - I do, but I really have to make a fairly big movement to connect to the horse, especially since I'm pretty tall and I ride smallish horses. My leg has a long way to go to be able to influence the horse.

Legs are in correct position for SI, but outside leg is nowhere near the horse. Inside leg is probably not being effective either given that we should be doing SI but we're definitely not.

When I rode with Mary Wanless, it was immediately obvious that my thigh was completely off the horse, as I didn't use it to post and instead posted off my stirrups. Using my thigh - but without pinching with my knee - was a revelation, but also a hard habit to get into. To this day, I struggle with keeping my thigh on (it's especially hard to keep thigh on but hip open in sitting trot!), but my lower leg is even worse.

Enter the idea of "keeping your legs close." I don't need to keep them ON, because that will just cause confusion. But I need them to be more supportive, like a very light hug, so that when I DO need to cue, I can do so immediately instead of having a time gap between when I start the cue and when it actually reaches the horse.

No hug, Leo was easily able to pull me forward.

Turns out, having my legs actively (if quietly) engaged is also really helpful in keeping my seat on the horse. In downward transitions especially, or when Leo gets a little quick, I tend to brace my leg forward. This not only takes my legs forward and away from his sides, but because I'm bracing against the stirrups and literally pushing myself out of the saddle, it pops my seatbones off. In that moment, I have no way to influence the horse, either from my leg or seat. It also leaves me in a precarious position, as I am liable to have put myself behind the horse's motion, usually quickly followed by collapsing forward as the momentum catches up with me (stupid physics).

Leo fell out of the canter because my leg was forward and I was behind the motion - you can see how hollow my lower back is (another longtime struggle) and how I'm braced against the stirrups, and he's braced against me.

So, my job for the next while is to actively "keep my legs close" AT ALL TIMES when riding. This helps my balance (and therefore Leo's), AND it means I can support him more quickly when he needs a bit of help. It also magically fixed his tendency to fall out on his left shoulder when tracking right (who knew a little outside thigh could keep your horse straight??), rescue his haunches when he wants to travel with a hind leg out, and it means I can be quicker when I ask for small changes of bend, a titch more impulsion... all those things you actually need your legs for. WHO KNEW?

Still a lot to work on, but he was super balanced and light in this moment, and so was I. I want more of this!!!

Also, today is the third anniversary of the time Taran and I went to USDF Nationals. It's still the highlight of my riding career, and I will never forget the little grey pony who took me so far. May he rest in peace.

Victory lap in the Alltech <3

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

How a piece of bailing twine made my horse uphill (really!)

As a short-backed, short-necked drafty breed, Leo isn't exactly the most uphill creature on the planet. While he's not built downhill, he's also not a naturally uphill kind of guy. Plus, we've been working on stretching down and out and relaxing his underneck muscle, which sets him on his forehand. I also have an unfortunate habit of riding him a little (ok sometimes a lot) over-tempo, which also dumps him on his forehand.

Definitely over-tempo and on his forehand here - the RH is about to leave the ground but the LF is still solidly weight-bearing. Oops.

So, how to get your horse off the forehand 101? For me that has always been lots of transitions, and usually it works well. But while the result is overall pleasant, it's not enough to make the 2nd level movements consistently easy or get his shoulders mobile enough for the fancy stuff at 3rd. Plus, it doesn't take much for me to get tense and pull a bit, and for him to dump down and not be able to recover without a major reset (think halt-reinback).

This is pleasant but it's kind of blah.

There are these nagging problems, like our change of direction in trot tends to be rushed for a few steps because we lose balance. Or the first full stride in the canter transition is huge because we've lost balance. Or I let him get behind my leg and he loses balance. Etc etc etc.

Enter the lowly piece of bailing twine:

You too can have one of these super fancy training gadgets!

I swear you guys, this thing is MAGIC. I held it between my middle and index fingers with minimal tension around his neck, and right away I could feel his chest push down and out. Obviously I could see it too, since his poll drops, and I could feel it in my seat as well, but the feeling of the chest going down and out was really something new. All I needed to do was raise my hands up (straight up, not back) an inch or so, and that reminded him to lift his chest back up. It also helped me sit a bit deeper in the saddle in that moment, essentially half-halting with my seat, further encouraging his chest up and his pelvis under. All that without touching his face!  

The first day of the clinic, I used it quite a lot. The second day, Leo came out MUCH lighter in the front with very little help from the twine. My job was to rebalance him every.single.time he got a bit heavy in front - no more "oops" and don't fix it moments. I got much better and faster at helping him, and relied on the twine less and less. By the third day, he was a bit tired but he felt SO much more balanced - more engaged behind and up in front. Moving his shoulders around felt effortless, and I finally got my legs situated so I could control his hind end better (that's for another post though). 

Here are videos of trot and canter each day, for comparison:

Trot progression

Canter progression

Hopefully you can see (and hear) when he gets down in front and when he feels more balanced. I think he was best on the second day, but there is a lot to like about the third day as well.

I plan to continue to ride with the twine to help with feel and balance, although I will likely just start our rides holding it and then let it lay on his neck. It has really been a great teaching tool, allowing me to feel the "chest down" sensation in a whole new way. I need to be 100% committed to NOT allowing him to get his shoulders down, EVER. That also means that *I* cannot get my shoulders forward or look down, because it affects his balance so much. But the feeling when he is truly balanced and uphill is just so incredible and easy, I can't wait until that is our new normal!

More of this please!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Another schooling show: It could have been worse

Our local GMO is continuing to hold safe, socially-distanced schooling shows, so Leo and I did another one last weekend and rode 2-1 twice. It was a new venue, and based on our lack of warmup at the last show, I planned to leave PLENTY of time for him to get comfortable.

I also needed time to do something with this mop.

And it's a good thing I did. He was totally chill for tacking and grooming at the trailer, and was good for our 10 minute walk in-hand to look at some things. The arena was pretty scary - mirrors at one end, big judge's booth at the other, pallets and hay bales stacked on the uphill side, and it was away from everyone else. He took exception to a giant smoker outside the arena but was otherwise reasonable. A little up, as one might expect of a young horse on a cool morning in a strange place, but nothing bad.

Can we talk about how scary this arena was for a moment?

I hopped on and started walking on the grass outside the teeny warmup space. I had planned to do a lot of walking on a long rein, then gradually pick him up, like we do at home. About two minutes in, he did this very odd squeal-and-strike move which he has never done before. I laughed it off and we kept walking, although my husband said, "Well that was weird" as we walked past him. Shortly after, Leo squealed, hopped and twisted, then kicked out. He has NEVER done anything like that in the two years I've had him, so I took the hint and (heart pounding) got off. 

At least our Pumpkin Spice Haffie outfit worked out!

Luckily there was a round pen on site, so we went over, I stripped off his bridle, then stepped back and told him to "go play." He took off bucking and squealing, which he continued to do both directions for about ten minutes. I haven't had to lunge this horse in probably 18 months, so this was completely out of character for him. In hindsight, I'm SO glad he was polite enough to let me know he needed some time to play instead of just dumping me (because he absolutely could have dumped me), and I'm glad I heeded his warning. Note to self: pack lunge equipment from now on, because he may need a little time on the line at shows.

By the time he was done playing, he was blowing and steaming, and we only had about ten minutes before our ride. I re-bridled him and hopped back on to a much more relaxed-feeling pony. It turned out the rider before us had scratched, so we did our warmup in the actual dressage arena. I crammed in as many transitions as I could, and getting him to focus on me. When the bell finally rang, I felt at least prepared if not completely ready.

Supposed to be shoulder in. Is definitely not shoulder in. Significant amounts of side-eye though.

Annnd we actually put in a focused, mostly mistake-free test? He was not at all collected - between running in the round pen and our lack of warmup, he just wasn't really on my seat the way he is at home, and was heavier in my hand than usual. But he did all the things where he was supposed to more or less how he was supposed to, and did not look at a single thing for the entire ride. Considering how we started the day, I will absolutely take it!

I kept trying to rebalance this medium trot but nope. You can see how much he's on the forehand given his RH is almost off the ground but his weight is still supported by his LF. 

There are so, so many things that need work, and I can't reproduce what we have at home off-site yet. We still don't have the warmup we need to produce quality work, and I have enough problems with my own balance and straightness that I can't help him enough when things go south.

Like this 10 m canter circle which is definitely larger than 10 m.

Probably because of how crooked I get at times. Lawdy.

Still, the test scored a 64.5%, which felt generous. We pulled some 7s for the canter work and walk work, but he just needs more collection and our mediums in all gaits need more ground cover. I feel like this is something that will get better as he gets stronger - I see glimpses of it at home, but sustained power and balance just don't exist yet. And it's not as if he's got ground-covering gaits to begin with!

We did the test a second time, but only had two rides between tests so I kept it to walk work and a few canter transitions.  Honestly, I should have just scratched the second one, as he too tired to put in a better effort. We made our way around, but blew all three canter departs (ugh, like the previous show) and he was even more strung out for this test. We finished with a 60.7%, but it felt like it should have been in the 58% range. Oh well, lesson learned, and that's really what these schooling shows are all about.

There aren't any more schooling shows this year, but there is a rated show at the same venue in early December with local judges. I'm tempted to go so Leo can experience an overnight show, but we'll see where we are in another few weeks. I'd actually need to like... find my show coat, which hasn't seen the light of day since November 2018, when Taran and I went third level for the first and only time. Sniff... fond memories. 

Video of the first test


Monday, October 5, 2020

A schooling show with Leo

While I know a lot of folks are frustrated at having to put their showing on hold for at least part of this year, I've actually enjoyed having no pressure to do anything other than have fun with ponies. This has made my riding kind of sporadic, but it's also given me the time to really pick apart things and slowly build up our skills. I've spent a lot of time working on my biomechanical issues - which, let's be real, those will be forever a work in progress. While I haven't been at all rushed, Leo's training has come along quickly, which I find kind of surprising given my lack of focus. 

Unfortunately, the lack of focus and show goals has left us with some odd holes in his training. He does a brilliant walk pirouette, but our trot leg yield is sketchy at best. His walk/canter is really coming along (I set him up correctly obvs) but the canter/walk is more like a sliding stop because we've never quite gotten over that "big whoa" that was installed during his first 60 days with a cowboy. 

Anywho, our local GMO has started holding schooling shows again, and I had a bit of an itch to do something, so I signed us up. Due to aforementioned training holes, the question was... which tests? 1-3 was doable (with questionable leg yields), but it has SO MUCH CANTERING in it. Leo isn't in the best of shape, plus he's a hairy yak and I knew it would be in the 90s during the show, so getting through 1-3 seemed like a big ask. We did a fairly respectable rendition of 2-1 the weekend before the show, and it's a much shorter test, so I opted to go with that.

The show was run well as usual (our GMO is AWESOME!), and people mostly followed the mask and distancing mandates. We kept our masks on and showed out of the trailer, so we had no contact with anyone other than waving to a few friends. I gotta say, it was so nice to see folks, even if from a distance. I'm a huge introvert by nature, but apparently after 6 months of mostly staying home, even I am desperate for humans!

Sadly, I didn't give us nearly enough time for warmup before our first ride. Leo's been such a solid guy at home, I keep forgetting he's 6 and doesn't have much travel experience, so the 20 minutes I'd allotted for warmup was just not enough. As a result, we went into the first test with him not at all over his back due to tension, so we really struggled. He tried so hard to do all the things, but just couldn't given his level of tension. I've never had a test with so many mistakes (cantered in the medium trot, bolted in the 10 m canter circle, missed 2/3 leads in the w/c departs), but we corrected each one and moved on. 

I have no idea what caused this bolt, but we got it back together within two strides and finished the 10 meter circle blob.

When your mum does a craptastic job of setting up for the canter depart and you somehow miraculously rearrange your legs to get the correct lead.

Our second medium trot was our best one yet! He needs to be more up in front, but he was really allowing his shoulder to come forward, and he stayed super balanced under me. 

Having got the first test out of the way, we had a few rides to reorganize. I worked on more relaxation and lateral work for uphill balance, then sharpened up our transitions a bit. Unfortunately it was quite warm so we were both running out of steam for the second ride, and it showed in the judge's consistent  comments of "needs better uphill balance".  We were both much more relaxed though, and the test was mistake-free. Of course we need better mediums all around, but he's a pro at coming back to collected canter, so that scored well. He also got an 8.0 on his free walk, which I will 100% take.

Reasonably balanced in the counter-canter. Photo used with purchase.

We were pretty tired by the time we got to the final medium trot (and you can see that my face matches my shirt lol), but we did it! Photo used with purchase.

The judge was extremely generous in our first test, in some cases giving us 5s where a 3 or even a 2 probably would have been more appropriate lol. I feel like it should have scored around 57-58%, but it scored a 62%. Our second test was much more consistent but not as uphill, and scored a 65%, which I still felt was quite high. Still, I will happily take those scores and work on areas where I know we can do better.

Overall, it was a really good learning experience for both of us, and a nice low-key way to get back into the show ring. There's another show in October at a different venue, so I hope to go to that as well to get Leo more experience, and to get myself back into the rhythm of competing.  He's a good kid, we just need miles!

Friday, September 18, 2020

Yellowstone National Park photos

Geez, it's been a while. Feels like years, and maybe it has been. We're all fine here, I hope you are too, and have found ways to work within the craziness that is 2020.

I keep writing blog posts in my head while doing horse chores; it's a great time to solve life's problems. The thing is, I never manage to write them down. Maybe this post means I'll get back to blogging, maybe not. No promises.

In August, after not leaving the house for anything more than groceries since March, we decided to head to Yellowstone National Park. We took our truck camper and everything we needed for the 10 day trip, which meant we only had to stop for gas. In fact, the only time we went inside a building the entire 10 days was to get some t-shirts at Yellowstone and some craft beer that hubby wanted. So as far as socially-distanced holidays go, it worked well. It was also SUPER nice to just get away from our house for a while and do something different.

So without further ado, have some pictures from Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area.

Our first night in Wyoming, we parked in a friend's driveway near Dubois and had this amazing view.

Jade Lake and wildflowers

Grand Tetons from near Dubois

There were SO MANY geysers and pools in Yellowstone, all of which have names, but I don't remember them.


We were really roughing it in the wilds of Wyoming hahaha.

Looks like it's from another planet, doesn't it?

This one looks bottomless

The different color rings are formed by different bacteria that live in the scalding waters.

The blue/white pools are the hottest, near boiling.

The dissolved silica sometimes builds a little "rim" around the pools

Geophysicist hubby watching geophysics happen

Grand Prismatic Spring 

Another "rough" meal - including fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies - after a long day of hiking 

Also yes we did see some buffalo rather up close and personal (sorry about the bug splats on the windshield, I was not about to get out of the truck to get a better picture)

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

More Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The one and only Old Faithful

Sunrise over Lake Yellowstone. The lighting was incredible

Really wish I'd had a better camera

Tiny geyser on the shores of Lake Yellowstone, with grebes paddling by

Grand Tetons

A carefully-timed and -placed picture to make it look like we were the only ones at Grand Tetons (we weren't, but honestly none of the parks were very crowded)

Dillon Reservoir outside Frisco, CO (on our way home)

I hope this blog finds you and yours well. Please know that I still read y'all's blogs and keep up, even if I'm not posting or commenting much.

Also... HI MOM!!! ;)

PS. Maybe next time I'll write something about the horses.