The End of the Honeymoon

Hello all, and happy spring break!

We are having astoundingly lovely weather down here. It’s been highs in the mid sixties and lightly breezy. Good news for riding.

Shiloh and I have finally discovered roundness. Wobbly as it is, I feel that it’s still an incredible accomplishment for the two of us. It’s taken us almost a full year to get to this point. It happened about a week ago, at the beginning of my lesson. I was walking him around the arena with light contact and gently sponging the reins in the rhythm of his walk, when suddenly, I felt his head slowly bobbing down to the vertical. My trainer and I were both stunned as he continued to meet my hand and soften his shoulder in the corners. Holy bazooka. I honestly never thought this would happen. Not only is he starting to round under saddle, but I feel like his muscles and body structure is slowly changing as well. His topline and neck muscles are more developed now than they were a year ago.

Shiloh coming into this summer:

Shiloh last summer:

Shiloh 2

I’ve been lucky enough to snag regular weekly lessons for the past month and it’s really paying off!

I’m sure those of you with the lanky horses feel my pain here. I’m dealing with sixteen hands of pure wiggle. I’ve learned to keep my hands as close together as possible to keep his wiggling to a minimum. It’s a constant struggle of trying to balance out my inside leg to my outside rein. Sometimes I feel like I’m riding a Chinese dragon and looping around the arena like that snake compute game, where there are multiple crazy bends all the way down his body and I’m responsible for keeping them organized.

mushu-swim-o

“You asked for bend! What more do you want from me?”

The best horse training advice I ever got is to simply ride every horse as if it’s a Grand Prix dressage horse. Never compromise your position or feel compelled to to overboard exaggerating your aids, just because the horse is green or uneducated. Obviously, one wouldn’t ask more of a horse that would be appropriate for his condition and training, but it’s a good reminder that you should never overwork yourself on a horse. Give them the benefit of the doubt by always starting with a quiet, clear aid and only escalating a cue when it is necessary.

I’ve found that when I start working too hard, especially when lateral movements are involved, I try to channel all the strength into my leg aids and then I end up torquing my body and sending a confused signal to the horse. My leg says “GO LEFT,” but my crooked body flops on the other side and says “meh, maybe you better hang right”. I just started carrying a whip for this reason. If I feel myself straining with my lower leg and getting no response, instead of sacrificing my position, I just give a subtle tap with the whip.

But my biggest take-away for this month of riding has less to do with the mechanics of riding, and more to do with the psychological nuances of partnering with my horse. As I’ve veered away from sloppy hacking in the pasture and begun to schooling dressage with Shiloh, I’ve sensed a distinct transformation take place in our relationship. We’ve hit the spot in our relationship where Shiloh’s realized that he’s actually expected to work, and I’ve realized that riding with purpose isn’t horsing around. I think the beginning stages of training are always the easiest, when you ask fairly little of the horse and they are still blissfully unaware of the sweaty saddle blankets that await them.

Shiloh is going through a bit of a rebellious phase right now. He’ll stay quiet in the bridle for the first bit of the ride, but the moment I ask him to work a little harder it’s like he has a melt down. I can feel his frustration build and practically whistle through the top of his head. Then he’ll have a head tossing, hoof stomping hissy fit and the ride goes to hell for a few minutes until I can get him to use his head again. The best I can do when he loses his head is to stay in the saddle and give him different jobs to do until he forgets to feel sorry for himself. The most difficult part of riding through this phase of training is keeping my own emotions in check and forcing myself to empathize with him.

“It’s perfectly normal for him to be frustrated,” my trainer keeps drilling in my head. Her favorite mantra is “delete and move on.” In other words, when something goes wrong (he throws a buck, flings his face around, or kicks up) do your best to get him back under control and immediately try again. The trick is to avoid wasting time reprimanding him or trying to fight back. When I let that cycle begin I lose every time. So when I feel Shiloh starting to unravel beneath me, I try to quickly downshift to a point where he settles down, then slowly build back up to where I was.

It’s a journey of a thousand steps, right?

Happy riding!

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