Derek McConnell Clinic

So, I just realized that I never circled back to do a post about the Derek McConnell clinic we did at the end of March. (I mentioned it briefly in a previous post and then apparently put it right out of my head. Which also reminds me, in a follow-up to that post: Poe started eating his grain again quite happily when I left his supplements out of it. I’ve ordered a fresh batch from SmartPak and hopefully we are good to go. Also had his teeth checked — he is scheduled to have them done, but he’s still been eating fine since I chucked the supplements.)

The clinic went well! It was pretty tough and to be totally honest I felt a little demoralized afterward. I just think Poe is such a fantastic boy and I am definitely not the caliber of rider he deserves. But, you know, he’s my guy, and I don’t think he’s sitting out in the field wishing it were Oliver Townend moseying out to get him. (Though who knows, maybe he is! If Ollie came up to me, with or without a pocket full of candy, I would happily go with him…)

We spent the first day really focusing on flatwork. We did quite a bit of warm-up work, with lots of transitions and Derek repeating his downward-transition mantra over and over: sit back, say whoa, and move the bit gently around the horse’s mouth with your fingers. Also lots of dressage-type talk about the proper positioning of your legs to ask the horse to bend. I think his over-arching message was about focus: have a plan for every ride, and make each minute of that ride count; be consistent. Train, train, train. He is obviously a man who is not afraid of hard work and who believes in the big Sustained Effort.

He had us do a little “course” over canter poles. When I rode it, I felt like Poe was blasting through it, just really running. He’d been pretty strong in the warm-up, really blowing off all my half-halts — he was definitely my away-from-home horse. When I watched the video back, I couldn’t believe it. You can see for yourself about a minute in. He’s just cantering along, la la la. He felt like a freight train but looked absolutely fine. That was my biggest take-away from the weekend: What feels way too fast is probably almost fast enough. (Apart from the time when he really is too quick and isn’t listening and leaps both the trot pole and cross-rail in one go. That is the difficulty with babies: it’s so so hard to know when and how much to push, because it changes by the second. You can watch that lovely moment at 2:18 — though, like everything else, I think it felt a lot worse than it looks.)

On the second day we repeated the previous day’s warm-up: lots of transitions and reminders about down transitions and changing the bend via our leg position. Poe was blowing off my half-halts worse than the previous day; he was by far the biggest-strided horse there, so we had some issues with running up on other people. I ran into some of the same difficulty the first day too — in the canter warm-up I was paired with a woman whose horse refused to canter at all, and all the fences created an obstacle course that made it pretty much impossible to maneuver around with our current level of steering. When sitting back, saying woah, and moving the bit gently around Poe’s mouth didn’t work, Derek had me do a sort of slow see-saw thing — I hate to call it that, but it’s the best I can think of to explain. He had me put slack in one rein and pull the other slowly but strongly, then switch. Poe was not thrilled about it but with Derek’s coaching it did prove effective. I wish now I’d asked him about graduating from that — it’s a bit too crude to keep around in our dressage work, but something for the toolbox anyhow.

After warming up we moved on to course work. Poe was wonderful, I am pathetic: story of my riding life. Again, the lesson is MORE FORWARD. I also need to get in the habit of (and in shape for) putting on a stronger leg at the base of the fence. He needs that support and encouragement, even when he feels totally committed — he can still stall at the last second.

(For those using a feed reader, the videos may not be displaying — you’ll have to click through to the site to see them, or directly to YouTube: Day 1 and Day 2.)

Lesson: April 21

I was off gallivanting around London April 9 – 16, so His Poeness had almost a week and a half off. I got back on him Monday the 18th, and he was awesome. After the usual initial struggle to get his attention, he (more or less) got down to work; he was as solid in the connection as he’s ever been, and trying really hard. Even though we were riding outside (YAY) he listened pretty well, and after some nice trot work, some leg yields, and a little canter, I hopped off him. I put him away feeling really happy that I’d asked my instructor to ride him during my usual Thursday lesson spot while I was out of town — she’s a really nice dressage rider and can always get much better work out of him than I do.

I had roughly the same ride Tuesday. Wednesday he was distracted and I was impatient (worst emotion for riding, I know!), so after a bit of a struggle and some half-hearted work, I put my stirrups up and slipped the reins and asked him to just canter around the rail. He was much happier about that than more boring circles and leg yields, and would quite enthusiastically lengthen down the long side for me. We careened a bit around the short sides and we had to have a serious discussion about one of the corners he insisted on cutting, but it was definitely the right call to give up on strict dressage practice for the day. After we were done cantering I had him trot around on a loopy rein while I worked on my half seat, which is in woefully disrepair. I am definitely out of shape.

So we roll around to Thursday — and I find out that my instructor didn’t ride him while I was gone after all, since we hadn’t touched base about it again before I left. Ha! I guess he just responded really well to his mini vacation. We were outside again, which I am still just ecstatic over — I think the advent of spring makes all Minnesotans a little nuts, as we trip over ourselves at the slightest excuse to get out in any weather above freezing. Spring apparently makes the barn cat nuts as well. Poe and I were warming up along the rail at a nice walk; I was asking him to come into the connection and he was listening quite nicely, and I was feeling quite optimistic about our lesson — and then we were abruptly cantering the other direction. I brought him around quickly, and he stopped like a good boy — and there was the cat, leaping maybe eight or nine feet to cling to the side of a tree, then scurrying down and tearing off. I was just happy that I’d stayed securely in the saddle for the whole thing. (Though I should probably be happy that my horse decided to take me with him when he tried to exit the scene; all things considered it was not hard to sit at all.)

Other than the cat incident, Poe was fabulous for our lesson. We worked on leg yields (still not beautiful but they’re coming along!), then the dreaded canter — except his canter was awesome. The transition into it is still a work in progress; we did a trot spiral in then back out on a circle, and then I concentrated (or tried to) on holding my outside rein while asking him to step into the canter. I think I’ve mentioned, probably a hundred times, my bad habit of chucking him the reins for that transition. The best one we got happened when I consciously held that rein longer than I wanted — he took a couple extra trot steps, but I waited, and then: gorgeous.

The canter itself was gorgeous too — by far the best he’s given me. He was soft and round and really trying. He’s still pretty heavy on his forehand in it, but with time and conditioning he WILL start carrying himself more from behind, and then he will be faaancy. He’s such a good boy! AND all this was in the misting rain. It felt so nice to be riding outside, and it was such a light, fine drizzle that we just stayed there. Happily my instructor’s also an eventer, and we lot aren’t afraid of a little weather.

After our canter work I would’ve happily gotten off him and convinced him he was the cleverest pony in the world, but my instructor is a slave-driver (or at least a lot less lazy than I am), so we went inside to do a bit of jumping. She set a single fence on the short side. It was just a tiny cross-rail at first, which he trotted over, like a cavaletti (cavaletto? whatever the singular of that is). After a couple times around I asked what we were supposed to be doing exactly, and she mentioned he was a bit clumsy/ho-hum about the whole thing, and I said Yeah, he’s not going to jump something that small. So she put it up to a vertical — which he also trotted over. I explained that I do start him over small stuff, part of his baby education and all, but that he just doesn’t use himself and he does look quite lazy and unspectacular. I don’t know how high she ended up raising it, but once it went up a bit he started jumping and things were much prettier from there.

And since then he’s been sitting on his pampered red hiney again; I’ve been busy with life (very important dancing to do, and cleaning, and Easter, and tonight a concert, and there may have been some recuperating-from-dancing somewhere in there too), so it’s back to work tomorrow. At this rate we’re never going to be ready to do anything this summer.

spring has sprung

spring has sprung

Just a quick post about my lesson last night, so that I might remember longer than five minutes all the things we worked on. We started with some work over four ground poles, at the walk and the trot, encouraging him to be steady and soft in the contact. He was a really good boy — that makes two really nice flat sessions this week, yay Poe. Afterwards we worked on leg yielding, then his canter. We had a LOT of trouble to the left — he was really sluggish and did NOT want to be round at all — but he was pretty great to the right, and we quit on that note.

Things for me to really remember and work on: holding my hands higher, with straight wrists! I have a very bad case of puppy paws, and have gotten into the habit of holding my hands lower than I should, and particularly dropping my inside hand toward my thigh when trying to get him to bend. I also need to concentrate on sitting very square in the leg yields, and stop trying to help him so much with my pelvis/seatbones and thigh. I’ve also been concentrating really hard on being soft and quiet my own self, even when he is not, and it seems to be working well.

He was a big sluggish overall last night, which in itself isn’t totally unusual — sometimes he’s just like that, especially at home. But he was also eating his grain super slowly, and didn’t finish it after our ride, so I’m concerned about that. I asked the staff to keep an eye on how he eats today. He had good gut sounds on both sides and otherwise seemed okay… I tried to check his teeth but almost lost a finger, so I’m going to leave that to the professionals — he’s scheduled for his second round of vaccinations soon. Maybe he just bit his tongue or the inside of his mouth or something today? Or ate too much snow and mud trying to get at the first inklings of grass? Or has decided he doesn’t like his supplements any more? I don’t know. Horses.

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