I was excited to ride after my lesson on Thursday, so that I could transfer our work from the ground to the saddle. The temperature was in the low eighties, which is lovely right now, and Harley looked happy as we tacked up. We entered the ring and I assessed Harley's energy level. He was relaxed, his neck was low, and he was moseying at the walk. Now, I really do not mind a mosey at the beginning of a ride or down the trail, but when I touched him with my legs, he did not change his pace. I gave a stronger squeeze and received the same lack of response.
Have I started using my legs too much to keep him going?
My historically sharp horse was feeling a little dull. It is strange how these things can sneak up on you. I know that maintaining the pace is the horse's responsibility, but somewhere along the way I had started picking up the slack and not holding him accountable for his end of the partnership. I believe that this is a side effect of riding your own horse. I love my horse so it is easy to let things slide, whereas if I had been on a lesson horse, I would be much less tolerant of dragging toes. Let's also not forget that Harley used to be the kind of horse to fly off his feet, so I was glad that he was not overreactive, but now I am making excuses (for the love of a horse).
In Thursday's lesson, it had taken some assertive taps to get him moving. If I wanted to direct him with my energy, I would need him to provide some too, so I decided to reaffirm his responsibility to keep the pace.
As we walked, I gave a little nudge with my legs.
I tapped behind my leg with the whip.
Still no response.
I tapped a little more intensely.
He raised his head. "Did you say something?"
I tapped again, raising the intensity, the quickness of the tap. I kept my position neutral and my legs passive. I did not want to confuse the message by gripping or falling forward, weighting his forehand.
He continued to tighten and raise his head taking short, hurried strides until finally he reached forward and took a nice walk stride.
"Good Boy!" The tapping immediately stopped. I felt the saddle lift up as he stepped under my weight.
As soon as he heard "Good Boy" he went back to moseying. I could imagine him thinking, "Glad that's over with." Unfortunately for Harley, I was not going to accept just two nice steps; I wanted him to maintain his energy as long as we were riding. I was not doing this to be a drill sergeant. When he took those nice steps, he lifted the front of the saddle. Walking with energy is ultimately healthier for his body and much more pleasant than being squeezed by his rider's legs.
With kindness and understanding, I persisted.
I love you, Harley, and that is why I must hold you responsible for your energy level.
I do not want to you to slowly break down your body, by dragging yourself around and I do not want to compromise our communication and comfort by using my legs to keep you going.
I always started with a gentle aid and quickly escalated the taps from the whip until he was marching on his own. Since he does have a very nice engine, it did not take him long to relearn his responsibility, but we did have to repeat the process in trot and canter. It was very important that I kept tapping when he tightened his neck. My horse holds a lot of emotion in his neck, so if I released the pressure when his neck was tight, he would think that getting emotional and dropping his back was an effective solution. This is something that has taken me a long time to learn. It is easy to back off when a horse tightens and think "Oh, he doesn't like that", but if your request is fair and your horse is capable, it would be a mistake to end your directive just because your horse's initial response is "I'd rather not". Of course, this does not apply to unfair requests that overface the horse or assume previous knowledge.
The best part about Harley accepting responsibility for his energy level was the lovely impulsion he developed. His neck was long and stretching to the contact with a soft arch. He was less likely to fall on his forehand and if he did, he regained his balance quickly.
I could steer with my belly button, like we did on the ground, and Harley maintained a joyous lightness to his body.
I adjusted my own energy to ask for transitions. I enjoyed being able to ride with relaxed, draped legs. I could use my legs to ask for a little more engagement or provide an outside boundary around a turn, and then return to following my horse. There is no question that it is easier for the horse to move when the rider is not gripping, which is why gripping and squeezing usually leads to more of the same. However, falling into that pattern does seem to be a strong temptation in riding, at least for me.
We ended the ride with some canter-trot transitions. This exercise is hands-down the most difficult thing for my horse. Over the years, he had made tremendous improvement, but we continue to chip away at this all-important test of balance, strength, and suppleness. To my delight, I found that the impulsion which he was now providing was allowing him to transition down to trot with greatly improved balance. Often the transition is so rough that I am tipped forward, making it impossible for me to support him in the new gait and contributing to his loss of balance. To help him, I was hypervigilant of my knees and lower back. I literally held my knees off the saddle and thought about keeping my belly button back towards my spine. I steadied by hands just above his withers, so that my end of the contact would not float around during the transition. Along with his renewed impulsion, my stable position really helped him keep his balance from canter to trot with a long neck. The right lead was just about perfect and his left lead reached a personal best. There was no scrambling in trot and he was able to stretch into the contact in the canter. He was very happy to stretch down in trot after this challenging work, and I was happy to have a happy, responsible horse.