Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The One Where I Don't Fall Off

Today was Steen's birthday. He turned 13. My gift to him was a day off, which translated into some quality alone time with the bale.

I rode Zoey today. We started off trying to saddle at the hitching post. In my efforts to be graceful with this, I tied my offside stirrup up with my saddle strings, so I wouldn't have to swing it at her to get it on.

She did ok. Three seems to be the magic number with her. She managed to stay still for the pad (just some serious crunching up and stiffening the first time), but the first time I raised the saddle she stepped away. I went with her until she got to the rail and stopped, and I set the saddle on her back. Not ideal. I moved her back into position, removed the saddle, and petted her until she relaxed a little.

We tried again. She stepped away but only a couple of steps. We reset, and tried a third time, and she stayed put. Then I took a whole lot of extra time with her bridle. She deals with being bridled the same way she deals with so many things. She stiffens up and suffers through it. Today I wanted her to accept the bridling, which meant taking the bit without moving her head up and away from me first. I'd pet her, raise the bridle, she'd stiffen and move her head up and out, I'd apply light pressure to her poll or jaw until she brought her head back and relaxed. We did this over and over and over, but finally we got it done without the bracing and the nerves.

To the outdoor arena we went. The ride started out great. She was relaxed and responsive. We walked and trotted around. She's a lot more "up" for things lately. Like we worked on short-serpentines, and instead of getting defensive or scared, she just went with me and tried to feel them out.

Things were going so well I thought I might see about her lope again. I had her trotting a nice big circle, and I was getting ready to ask when she started to poop. I let my horses stop to poop, because I am never going to be in a show ring, and it seems so much kinder to let them do what is natural. So she was standing there and I was talking to Brian and I noticed the leg of one of my breeches had gotten a little twisted, so I leaned down to fix it.

And therein I made my first real mistake riding Zoey. She is so quiet and so easy to get along with, it is easy to forget she has these serious holes in her foundation. One thing we've noticed with her is she can be funny with things around her sides. She has a tendency to give the end of Brian's mecate (which hangs just behind his boot most of the time) the stink-eye when she bends in that direction. One of the reasons I like riding with saddle-strings and big dangly latigoes and the mecate rope is it acclimates a horse to the feel of things randomly touching them, and gets them used to seeing things moving around their sides and legs. It's important for a horse to understand the difference between incidental contact and contact that has meaning. And already we've seen some improvement with how Zoey takes these things.

But apparently me leaning down like that was too much for her. As I started to straighten back up, she lost it and bolted away from "me."

I had one of those moments where you really think you're going to come off. I was out of balance because I'd been leaning down, and she really squirted out and to the side with a whole lot of energy. In any other saddle, I think I'd have been toast. But I had at least been smart enough to shorten my outside rein before I bent down, and I managed to pick up contact on her head and start to bend her. This slowed her momentum and pulled me back into the saddle at the same time. A second later, I got my other hand on the horn.

Let me just say, I love the big, fat horn style of the Wade. The shape and size give you a great handle for a good, strong grip. With my hand on the horn, I felt a whole lot better. I settled back into place.

But Zoey was still very upset. I had got her bent, but she was spinning in fast, tight circles in spazzy movements. I took me a second to realize I'd lost my left stirrup, and it would fly out away from her when she started to spin, and then we'd slow a little it would flop back in and bump her, and she'd go flying off again. This is another thing I love about the Wade: pre-turned stirrups. My horse was spinning in crazy erratic circles, I had one hand on the horn and the other keeping her bent. Problem? Nope. My stirrup was there waiting for me. I just slipped my toe back in where it belongs in one effortless movement.

With the bouncing demon-stirrup tamed, Zoey stopped spinning. But she was rigid through her whole body. I tried to release her, and the second she had an inch to move she tried to straighten out and take off again. So I bent her again and let her find a way to stop again and then we stood there for quite a while. I wasn't pulling on her head, but I didn't give her any slack until I saw the quivering muscles in her neck loosen up a little. With my free hand, I rubbed her neck and her rump. She was shaking all over, poor thing.

We stood there until she was softer in the head and neck. I gave her her head back and she stood. We stayed put until we'd both regained our equilibrium.

For a while we went back to easy, confidence-building, non-demanding stuff, although every time we stopped for a while I flapped my legs around randomly after she'd been standing for minute. I kept this up until it stopped making her flinch.

We kept going. Twenty minutes later or so she'd returned back to the correct mindset and we had a good thing going again, so I returned to the idea of a lope. I got her in a nice trot again, and asked for a lope.

This did not go well. In retrospect, I was too ambitious. I know she has trouble balancing at the lope, so my thought was to keep her in a medium-sized circle to help her stay back on her haunches and learn to bend. Except I was just plain wrong. The moment I asked for the lope, she got nervous, which made her start seeking the bit again, dropping her head down and in, and collapsing her inside shoulder. I kept bumping her to bring her head up and hopefully encourage her to balance more to the outside, but without much success. She kept trying to escape out of the circle. I'd get her into the lope for a few strides, she'd fall apart before we got to anything I could reward her for, and we'd have to start over.

We went around and around and around and around and it was horrible. I stopped hoping for a full circle and just started looking for anything good enough to stop on. It felt like forever but it was really only three minutes. Brian got it on video, and it didn't look nearly as bad as it felt. But still, it was not fun. Finally she got into a lope that didn't involve blowing through my hand or my leg, and stayed there for a few strides. I sat up and let her stop.

We took a big break. We were both breathing hard and I felt pretty bad I'd misjudged what she was capable of. We went back to easy things for a while, and I thought about the problem at hand. For Zoey's long-term success, it's pretty critical we get her lope somewhere further along than helter-skelter unbalanced madness before we try to resell her, but I am always telling other people you can't work the lope. You've either prepared the horse sufficiently and the lope with work, or you haven't and it won't. I needed a way to work on the lope without loping.

Which made me think back to the Martin Black clinic and the people there who were having lope troubles. Martin told one person to get the horse as close to loping as they could without actually asking for the lope. Get to that point, and back off, get to that point, and back off. This gets the horse used to faster movement, and used to dialing up and down. And finally when you get to that spot and things feel balanced and comfortable, you will feel that the horse is willing to lope. That's when you see if they'll leave the trot. Not before.

So we returned to trotting. I asked her to move out, asking for life but not a different gait. She responded really well, and soon we were zipping around the arena with loads of life but intact trajectory and velocity controls.

I stayed entirely off her head, and worked on easing her up and down and up and down with the energy in my body and then, suddenly, she offered a single lope stride. It happened so fast I wasn't sure if that's what it had been. So I pushed her just a bit more, and she offered me another. Brian said, "Hey, that was a lope." So I stopped riding and she slowed to a stop and stood there and she got big time pets.

Then we went the other way, and after a few laps of big trots I could feel we were at that point. The tricky thing with this is you encourage the horse to leave the trot, you don't ask them to lope. This sounds like a ridiculous distinction of semantics, but it's not. It's the difference between allowing a horse to find something on their own and forcing them to go there.

Zoey found the lope, and it was an amazing lope. No more heavy on the forehand, no more dishing around corners and dropping head and shoulder while leaning down for the bit. She was back and centered and solid and it felt great.

We went about four strides and I stopped riding and let my seat go still. She came down and stood there licking her lips while I gave her more big pets. I figured if there was ever a high note to end a ride on, that was it. I stepped down. I tried to move away a little to take a picture, and she just kept wanting to stay right at my elbow.

So, it was one of those highly educational rides. It almost went bad twice, but we held it together. Hopefully we won't have another one quite like this any time soon.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback Hours YTD: 66:25


  1. Congrats on staying on, and turning a bad situation into a good one!

    Working on the lope without loping is the basic strategy I've taken with Tranikla. We're doing some actual loping now, since he enjoys it so much and we're actually able to get some control and balance going. But I did most of the work for it at the trot, and I think that made a huge difference.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I hear from basically all the trainers I respect that you can't work the lope at the lope. Trying to lope a circle on Zoey at this stage in the game was a miscalculation, and in retrospect when she started having trouble I should have aborted my mission, switched to asking for something she could more easily give me, and gone back to the trot without putting us both through three minutes of crazy off-balance lope-trot transitions first.

    Oh well. Live and learn, I suppose.


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