Sunday, August 03, 2008

Cruisin'

Well, it's now been three months since Steen came into my life and although he's still a long ways from dead broke, he's a more and more relaxing horse to be around every day. His ground manners are approaching excellent, and everything else is slowly improving as well.

Lately we have been doing an exercise I found in Clinton Anderson's book, Downunder Horsemanship, called "cruising." The point of this exercise is to get the horse to relax under saddle - something Steen has sorely needed to do for a while. Before reading Anderson's book, it often occurred to me that the philosophy of pulling on a horse's mouth to make it slow down seemed a little backwards in cases where a horse is agitated and inclined to fight the bit. With Steen, and with many other horses I have ridden, pulling on the mouth will cause the horse to slow down - but only until the pressure is released and then the horse will speed up again, often going even faster than before. As this process continues, both the horse and rider get more and more upset and things only get worse. Some riders then employ a harsher bit, or different mechanisms to add to the headstall to make it harder for the horse to do what it wants to do, which then in turn make the horse more agitated and the situation more and more dangerous.

Anderson's solution for this problem is so simple I felt I should have figured this out myself years and years ago. He says most horses with this problem simply need time to calm down under saddle and the only way to acheive this is to spend time riding them without making lots of demands they don't understand. He says to choose a gait, maintain it, and ride it. Period. Don't steer. Don't attempt to control speed within the gait. He points out that a horse is all about efficiency and won't want to waste energy once it understands that when it is told to pick up a trot, it will likely be trotting for a while. The horse will learn not to anticipate all sorts of irritating contact on the mouth, and will eventually relax, choosing on its own to drop down into a balanced, relaxed version of the gait because it is the easiest thing to do.

Before yesterday, Steen and I had done this twice, but only at the trot - once indoors and once out. After doing it again yesterday, I can safely say the result is nothing short of amazing. Yesterday, we worked in the outdoor arena, and after warming up walking around and working on stop and back, I told him to trot and turned him loose. He starting off a little nervous and wanting to trot in figure-eights as near to the distant herd as possible in a rather choppy, uncomfortable version of the gait. But I just let him do his thing, talking to him and petting him so he knew I was with him, and he slowly relaxed. His head came down, his gait slowed, and his ears turned back to listen to me. He started trotting beautifully on a loose rein, mostly staying on the rail and using the entire arena instead of only one end. We trotted for a long time, and it was so relaxing and enjoayble, I could hardly belive it.

Eventually, I let him walk to cool down some, and then it was time to lope. I will admit it took me a few moments to convince myself it was a good idea to tell an unfinished horse who'd already bucked me off once to run, and then willingly relinquish all control over his relative speed and direction. But happily I prevailed over my more cautious self, and gave the cue. Steen picked up the gait readily enough, but at first it was awful. He tried to go back into his figure-eight pattern but the end of the arena was much too small for the speed of the lope, and he'd go charging into a corner and then lurch spastically out again, often then plunging into a tight circle on the wrong lead. I was reminded how jarring it can be to sit on a horse's back. But I concentrated on keeping my seat and talking to him calmly, and I just let him do what he wanted, only correcting him if he dropped out of the lope to make him pick it up again. Although those first moments were pretty terrible, before long he began to relax just like he had at the trot. He started circling less and using more of the arena, and picking up the correct lead more consistently without any input from me on the subject. By the end he was loping in a circle on the rail, on the correct lead, relaxed, happy and having nearly as much fun as I was.

After loping, we trotted some more. Then I cooled him down, groomed him and let him graze in the lush outdoor arena while I lay there in the sun and thought about how lucky I am. Certainly, we've still got a long way to go, but yesterday I felt like we really turned a corner.

2 comments:

  1. Wow, this was very helpful! I'm having trouble getting a new horse to keep a walk. And I study Clinton Anderson, but had forgotten about this excercise. I'm going to try it tonight, only without the loping!

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  2. I'm so glad to be a little bit of a help. I hope the cruising is working for you!

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