Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Ride on a Different Girl

Bear seems to be over his bug. So although he's probably still struggling with the anemia, the vet suggested getting him back into some light riding would be good. So today we set out to ride all our horses, two each.

I started on Laredo in the outdoor arena. We rode him there a lot last spring, right when we first got him, but not at all since. He was lively and curious about the different space. During our groundwork I experimented with something we saw recently in a Richard Caldwell video (Starting in the Jaquima) where he used his hands and arms to apply pressure from a distance to a particular part of the horse when the horse was walking around him in a circle, and thus helped the horse maintain a more consistent bend in its body while moving without a rider. Laredo can be a bit spacey at times (part of the territory as far as being three goes, I think). When his attention is on you, he's responsive, but when it's not, you might as well not even be there. He can definitely check out during groundwork, and this proved to be a nice, low-impact way of getting his mind back. He'd tip his nose off and gaze towards the horizon and I'd step in a tad and raise my hands to put pressure on his rib cage. His nose would come back in and his ribs would bend out, and we'd keep going. Cool.

The ride was good. I watched Zoey and Brian a fair bit, but got some good work done on Laredo as well. We've been really working on his head carriage. He still has this odd tic where he wants to push his nose way out in front of him sometimes. He seems to mostly do it when he's frustrated, which is often when we're asking him for a little more life and he doesn't want to put the effort in. For a long time we've ignored this behavior, because it seems highly emotional for him, and related to some of the issues he had with his head/ears/face/bit. But we've finally worked through those things on the ground, so it seems time to start addressing them under saddle. The main problem with him doing this is it seems to really distract him mentally, and pulls him off-balance physically.

So today, every time Laredo pushed his nose out, I picked up on him a little and tipped his nose to the inside, to help him bend his neck and put his head back in position. He wasn't resistant to the correction. Most of the time when you snap him out of this movement it's like he's a bit started to find you're riding him, as if he practically blacks out when doing this. Obviously we don't want to punish him for something that is so clearly an emotional defense mechanism, but that doesn't mean we can't address it at all. I just kept things gentle and consistent, and I also corrected him by lifting his poll if his head got too low. It's amazing how his energy comes up with his head, every time.

For the most part he's feeling really smooth and solid lately. We worked on precise upwards and downwards transitions a lot, and got a lot of really excellent departures into the canter from the walk, which is something I haven't done much with him before.

Ride Time: 1:00

After ride one, we swapped out Laredo and Zoey for Steen and Bear, and ventured out into the stall horse lot. We've never ridden in this area before, but today the stall horses were all out in the trees, so we had the brilliant idea to close them in and ride in their pasture. It was nice out there, with some steep downhills and also some flatter areas we could use to work.

I continued to work on my recent to-do list with Steen, which is mostly getting him more consistent about staying collected in different gaits. He was actually kind of bad about this today. He seemed bracey. You can see in the photo above that I have pressure on the reins and he is not giving. This is unusual for him, and we worked at it quite a bit without getting anywhere. I took breaks, and loped some big circles, and came back to it. Still he was stiff. I upped the pressure on him once or twice, and that just made him stiffer.

So I took a break and thought about it for a while. One thing Richard Caldwell emphasized his video (and we've heard Martin Black bring up again and again and again) is that you can't pull on the hackamore without a warning. Every time you apply anything more than light pressure, you should take the slack out of the rein first, so the button comes up under the horse's chin and is tucked under the jaw, and only then can you start bumping, and keep bumping until the horse gives you a response.

The reason this is so important is because without that initial "taking the slack out" warning, the horse won't know a correction is coming. Applying pressure out of the blue is the definition of how to develop a defensive brace in your horse.

The problem with taking the slack out of the rein every time you pick up on a horse is it's HARD. Sure, when you're just riding along, picking up one rein gently and holding pressure for one beat is no problem. What's difficult is these moments always come with transitions, which means I'm in the middle of trying to set up my body for the change. Also the timing is so important, both in terms of how quickly you do something, and when you ask the horse for a change based on where their feet are. You have to take the slack out on the correct stride, wait a single beat to see if the horse responds or not, then if they do not, come in quickly enough that there is no time in between for them to lean on you. The calibration requires so much feel and timing. I try, but I know I get it wrong a lot. And lately I must admit with Steen being so good about everything, I have gotten a little lazy about trying so hard.

So after my little rumination period, I thought I could see the reason for Steen's stiffness. I've gotten sloppy with my bumping. I went back to working on the same stuff as before, but resolved to administer not even the smallest bump without taking the slack out first.

A lot of the time with horses, you change your riding and it takes days if not weeks to see a change in the horse. This was immediate. I asked Steen to back. He went back, but he did it with a brace in his neck, and slowly, with his haunch not at all engaged. I took the slack out, and applied gentle bumps on his nose until he gave. We did that a few times and, presto, I was riding a different horse. He started collecting and floating backwards off the teeniest lift in the rein.

So I'm recommitted to using the hackamore properly, which means no more bumping with slack in the reins, ever.

Ride Time: 1:00

We had Steen and Bear untacked and I went inside to put my saddle away, and our barn owner was there. Another boarder had been exercising Stella, who is a five year old Saddlebred mare that has been around our barn since she was a yearling, and has been trained as a showhorse. You know, a Saddlebred showhorse. To say our style doesn't quite mesh with the ways of the Saddlebred show circuit is a gross understatement. But Stella was standing there all tacked up, and our barn owner saw me and said, "Hey, you should go trot some circles on Stella in the outdoor arena."

When I was younger, I'd get on any horse I could. Any horse, anytime, anywhere, any set-up. I've climbed bareback onto horses I've known for five minutes and loped off down someone else's driveway. I've happily hopped up onto horses someone else just came off hard. I've ridden horses I could  barely handle because I felt safer being on their back than on the ground next to them. If circumstance offered me a ride, I took it. But when I got Steen about five years ago, and through him learned exactly how much I did not know, I've grown a lot more cautious. What's odd is it's not like I ever had a bad accident. I think it just finally gelled for me how many crazy stupid risks I had taken, and how lucky I was things had never truly come apart on me. For a period of time I actually found it stressful to ride other horses.

Fortunately, I've recently started swinging back in the other direction. While I still know I have so much to learn, I've got a lot of new tools that I can use before I get on a strange horse to make sure things aren't likely to fly apart. And riding Laredo and Zoey regularly has given me a lot more versatility. I want to be smart, but I don't want to be overly cautious.

So while I was a bit tired from the two hours of riding I'd just finished, I accepted the reins and took Stella outside. She was wearing a hunter-style saddle, and these itty-bitty leather reins that felt like they were going to break in my hands. But they were supple enough and long enough that I could put a coil in them, so I did that, and hopped on.

The barn owner came out to watch and to scold me constantly (but good-naturedly) about maintaining more contact. I have never ridden "with contact," and in recent years have gone increasingly in the opposite direction, riding on an ultra loose rein unless I am collecting the horse for a specific movement.

Stella is a nice horse, and she knows her job. She's also trained to be push-button, which is just so different from how we ride. We try to time up with the horse, and let our body influence their body. Stella does what she's told, whether you're in the right place for it or not. Our barn owner would explain her cue to me, I'd apply it, and Stella would move off into whatever gait I was asking for.

So we walked, trotted, and loped around. We got through the ride without any awkward moments. After I got to know her feel a bit better, I even used the bit like I was supposed to, and brought Stella into a collected frame and moved her out with my seat. She's got some serious action and leg movement, but she's smooth to ride. It was a fun little experience. I was probably on her for ten minutes or less, but I'm glad I got the chance to feel another horse.

Horseback Hours YTD: 65:15

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