Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Riding Reflection: Toe-Touching Exercises

For the horse, of course.

There was a special treat waiting for me at the barn today.  A freshly dragged arena!  I just love riding in newly graded sand, with neat little grooves.  I love making patterns with my horse's tracks.  If only I had my camera!  Sigh.  It was still great.  I made sure to tell the barn owners how happy I was.  So fun!

Today was definitely a day to take things slowly.  Yesterday, Harley worked very hard with lots of transitions to and from the canter.  He was busting his big quarter horse little tushy.  He really has heart.

We started off walking on a long rein, as always, and then I picked up the reins and gauged his response.  I was looking for him to chew the bit, softening his jaw, when I applied my leg.  If he tightened, then I opened the inside rein and gave a little hug with my inside lower leg.  I held this for a few seconds if he did not soften right away or from the rein opening alone.  He did tighten from time to time, raising his head and shortening his neck.  This also drops his shoulders, which is something that I want to discourage at all times.  We stayed in walk until he was consistently chewing the bit when I gave a small hug with my lower leg.  I wanted the leg aid to feel comforting or massaging to him.  I did not want to press or push him.  I wanted him to step from behind into a connection with my hand and seat by releasing muscles which I suspected were tight from yesterday's ride.  I added a couple turns on the haunches to test his softness.  I was very happy with his willingness, even if there was some resistance present.

The first trot transition was better than usual.  Instead of popping up off his shoulders, he stepped more from behind and mostly maintained the connection with my hand.  The first trot transition is often rough and jarring.  His improvement here must be a sign that I should make this gentle softening a requirement in our warm up.

Once in trot, I continued asking him to chew the bit in response to a "leg hug".  He was very quick to chew on the left, but took some persistence on the right side.  I was very gentle, keeping in mind that his left side was probably tight and needed to release in stages.  I found it more beneficial to ask him to chew on the right even when traveling left.  Guess which is his bendy side?  ;)

A couple times, I switched my posting diagonal to the inside and leg yielded back to the track, opening my inside rein if he felt resistant or stuck.  Before long he was feeling loose and with me.  He was trying to root against the reins less, which is a bad habit that I have not really been addressing.  If it felt like he was going to root, I would give a leg hug with one or both legs and keep my elbows at my sides.  I am a bit torn about setting against him, because he has had so much neck tension in the past and I do not want to discourage any attempt to stretch.  However, I do not like that he often pulls my elbows open, looking to initiate a stretch break.  I give him lots of breaks, so he should not be want for a stretch!  The hug and gently resist seemed to work very nicely.  He also got some more spring in his trot, although there was more weight in the reins.  I will take it for now and see how it goes.

In the canter, the toe-touching continued.  I kept it very forward and kept him cantering so that he would not have to work the same muscles from yesterday.  He is so cute, because I could tell from his ears and the way he was holding his body that he was ready to repeat yesterday's exercises.

There will be video.  Look at that tail!  He's electric.

"Not today, Harley.  You're a Good Boy."

I swear he thinks about things when we are not riding.  Sometimes he is able to successfully do an exercise after a few days break, even if we have not revisited it.  I appreciate this quality in him even if it is a side effect of being an anticipator.  But today was too soon.  I wanted his muscles to rest.

We mixed up some straight lines and circles to stretch and relax his cantering muscles, then we went on a circle and I asked him to chew the bit.  This is a new game in canter.  The timing is much different than in trot and too much neck displacement upsets his balance.  When I was originally teaching him to canter from a leg cue, I made the mistake of over bending his neck to the inside.  He would consistently pick up the outside lead, until I realized that I was blocking his inside shoulder making it impossible for him to canter on the correct lead.  I had to retrain myself, but eventually I figured out how to not block his inside shoulder and the (my) problem went away.  I guess I had one too many dressage lessons focused on bend without taking into account the lift to the inside.  This is just one of many things I have relearned.  Add it to the list!

With great care, I opened my inside rein and gave a little leg hug in canter.  I made sure that I did not cause his head to move more than enough to see the inside nostril and eye.  I was delighted by his response.  Not only did he soften and chew, but he also lifted the base of his neck in front of the withers and became lighter in the reins.  Why haven't I already been doing this in canter?

This toe-touching exercise also allowed me to find that he was leaning against my inside leg on the left lead.  This surprised me, since the left is his bendy (hollow) side.  I used a little leg yield before the transition and in the canter to encourage him to soften in his ribcage.  The canter felt nicer still and I decided to call it a success and a ride.

I think that I should be using these toe-touching exercises more frequently.  I was surprised by the places that he felt tight and very pleased with the improvement in his way of going after he touched his toes.


  1. How interesting that this was your ride. I spent a lot of time today working on some of those same things -stretching down without restriction. The judge at Sunday's show felt I was being too restrictive. I pulsed the rein and asked him to reach while also squeezing him gently forward. I caught him when he "hurried," and said not so fast! I kept thinking, REACH, REACH, STRETCH, STRETCH. It was a very nice ride today, and Speedy seemed to enjoy the different approach. I like your hug visual/ Speedy may get some hugs next time!

  2. Hi Karen,
    We did stretch in the beginning, and that is also a very good toe-touch! Afterward, I was asking him to be soft in the bridle by relaxing his jaw and releasing any tight muscles (neck and poll) while moving in a working frame.

    I am glad that Speedy was enjoying his work today. Give him a hug from me!

  3. Had some great leg hugs today! They are much easier to do on Sydney as he is quite a lot rounder than Speedy G! Sydney responded well and a side effect was that I kept my toes pointed forward instead of letting them pop open! I tried them with Speedy G, but he is much narrower than Sydney and also more "slab sided" which means that it is harder to go around him. On the flip side, my leg hangs down nicely because there's nothing in the way! :0) Thanks for the tip.

  4. You are very welcome. It is neat to be able to experiment with both horses.


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