Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Trees and The Wind

On Friday, we had another nice day at the barn, except Steen was still showing symptoms that there might be foxtails in the hay again. I looked at the new bale they'd put out to replace the last one that had foxtails, and found it chalk full of the offending weed. I talked to the barn manager, and hoped that was that. Brian had his lesson, so after an hour indoors during which he rode Oliver and I rode Laredo, we decided to head out to the tree pasture for the first time this year.

I rode Steen. Brian gave his lesson while riding Laredo, and his student rode Bear. I mostly did my own thing. Steen was happy to be out. When we left Brian and his student behind and headed down to the far end of the lot, he was happy to go but not at all jazzed up.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my weaknesses as a rider (I always think about this a lot, but new horses give you new perspective) and there are a few things I really want to work on this summer. I was trying to keep them in mind during my ride.

Rhythm

This remains the biggest flaw in my riding (that I can see, anyway). I have gotten much better about getting into a rhythm with a horse, but I don't stay there long enough. After a minute or so, I end up thinking, "Ok, good, we've got this going well." And then I stop. One thing that struck me the first time I asked Aiden for a trot was the feeling that he would stay trotting without complaint for a good long while. Steen to some extent, and definitely Laredo tend to feel more like they are always looking forward to stopping. And with Laredo you have to frequently remind him to stay at a good pace. This is because I've not taught them to settle in like someone has taught Aiden to.

Timing

I suppose this is one of those things that can only improve incrementally over time, and I have made a lot of progress. I can now at least feel when I ask for something on the wrong footfall, and increasingly I can time up with footfalls and ask for a transition or a maneuver at the right moment. But I still miss more than I'd like to. So it's just something I need to stay aware of.

Softness

With Steen, he's soft most of the time. Where we tend to lose it is when things go a little wrong. If a transition fails to go quite right, if environmental factors get him distracted, or if he starts to lose motivation, he can come onto my hands a little. Oliver (and his ultra-reactivity to the bit) has recalibrated my understanding of what a horse is capable of responding to. In his case, initially he was escaping and evading, but nevertheless, I had never seen a horse move his feet so much in response to so little. Until Oliver, Steen was the lightest horse I'd ever ridden by a wide margin, but he didn't come to me that way. In the last six years, I've had to work pretty hard to undo the lessons he learned from his life before me, plus then repair all the mistakes I made riding him in the beginning. It's so easy to let what you 'know' about a horse inhibit what you can get done with him. I know Steen can stay soft all the time. I just have to find a way to help him do it.

I started out the ride just poking around the trees. It was windy, and there are lots of dried leaves leftover from fall. A number of times, Steen and I got caught in gusting leaf storms. Moments like this that do make me feel pretty good about how far we've come. Here we are, our first ride out in this area since last fall some time, alone, with leaves clanking against his legs and blowing up into his face. Steen didn't care. Six years ago, I would never have even tried to ride him in that kind of environment. Five years ago, he'd have been spinning and bolting repeatedly. Three years ago, he'd have been prancing. One year ago, he'd have been looking over his shoulder with a magnetic pull back towards the other horses. On Friday, he stayed with me.

That's not to say he never had any opinion about our trajectory. One of my biggest challenges with Steen over the years has been finding constructive ways to redirect him when he gets a magnet pull while we're out and about. The wrong kind of correction will spike his anxiety, which will only make his desire to get wherever he perceives as safe even stronger. This is one area I think the 1/2" roo-hide bosal has helped. It has given me a new layer of subtlety to use when we communicate. Every time we went around a tree and he saw the other horses and his attention went that way, I would ask him to get back on track with a touch on the shoulder with my foot. Sometimes, that was enough, but if not, I could gently bump his nose back into our bend. I worked on seeing how little I could do, and was surprised at how much I could get done with lighter asks than I'd ever used  in this kind of situation before. And the more times I asked lightly, the less he thought about the other horses.

In some ways, it's frustrating. I have had that mantra in my head for years. "Ask with less than you think it will take." And I thought I was asking with less. This ride, I learned I wasn't.

I guess there's a reason it takes a lifetime to get good at this.

After lots of walking, we trotted. I picked a tree and trotted a big circle around the trunk. I worked on getting in a good cadence and staying there. I worked on asking for a little collection and extension at intervals. He really settled in as we worked.

We cantered once, but the footing was a little slippery and as soon as I asked for it I started experiencing flashbacks to our tumble in the fall. I'm still not fully healed from when he went down with me cantering on the strip, so I didn't push it on that one.

After about an hour, Steen was feeling a little tired. I knew he was not at 100% because of his drooly foxtail mouth, so I hopped down and sat beneath a tree and waited for Brian to finish with his lesson.


Horseback Hours YTD: 48:55

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