I have only ridden Harley three times since our little dressage show adventure. Twice we worked on homework from the judge. In between those rides, we went on a NINE horse trail ride! That was a new record for us and we got to lead the way for some parts of the trail. My absolute favorite part of the ride was near the end, because we were coming home and most of the walking (read: gaited) horses wanted to move out, so we picked up a trot in front of the pack. We had a couple walkers on our tail, but not for long! I gave Harley the "okay" to canter and he picked up such a beautiful, lofty, left lead canter that I hardly recognized my horse. He felt like he was cantering in slow motion with huge, elegant strides and a blur of trees on either side of us. His feet seemed to only lightly touch the ground and his back was so round and easy to sit. The woman behind us called for us to stop and wait at the next intersection in a clearing, so I brought him back to trot and he halted with draped reins and a little fancy trot on the spot. So gorgeous. He must have gotten our follower's attention, because she reached out a hand to his nose as she passed us. He snorted and arched his neck so that his mane hung like a curtain over his topline. She whispered an "easy boy" to him as I mused that I was riding a wild horse, momentarily calm, granting me passage through the wilderness. We waited like a scout, as the entire group passed us to move onto the next trail through the woods and then we took up the rear and walked home with Harley relaxed and on the buckle. It was great!
Our ring rides were equally fun, but in a completely opposite way. I have been riding along with my imaginary catalog under my outside upper arm with fabulous results. The funny thing about riding this way, is that I feel like I have a new barometer for our level of throughness. When my outside arm is "connected to my body", as the judge described, I am much more aware of the contact which my seat has with the saddle. This in turn, allows me to feel if Harley's hindlegs are engaging and lifting his back. If I put my legs on or gently nudge with my seat or use the whip, I am now acutely aware of whether the aid has gone through his body or not. The even more interesting thing, is that many times, the aid does not go through. The energy travels from behind and leaks out in an unproductive way before reaching the bridle or he never starts the push from behind. This was not really a disappointment to me. I already knew that we needed to improve our consistency, which is why I do things like try to train him to be responsible for forward energy and ask him to be soft if he tightens his neck. Now, I feel like I have a new tool. I keep my outside arm glued to my side, and I try to keep my chest open and projected, as I think "proud rider". A seemingly simple positional correction has changed the quality of the feedback that I recieve from Harley.
For as much as he loves to go, Harley is often resistant in the upward transitions. His resistance is more detectable when I keep my outside rein. I only have to allow my outside elbow to come unglued a tiny bit for Harley to "waste" energy through that little door in the outside of my position. Riding is a two-way street. Perhaps, he does not step through, because I am not making that a viable option by being consistent and supportive with my position. When he is resistant in the transition, the first step of the new gait is of lesser quality. When he steps through the rein, the first stride of the new gait is of better quality, balance, and lightness. I do not have to scramble to half-halt or correct our balance, because the transition itself served as a balancing aid. We practiced many walk-trot-walk transitions. I was not willing to accept any resistance in the transition. I was also very vigilant of my own position. This was as much of a challenge for me, as it was for Harley! I want to give that rein away so badly, but when I can coordinate myself to keep the rein, Harley can step through and lift his shoulders into the next gait. We played around with this in the canter transitions, too. There seems to be a world of difference between maintaining my position and holding him back with force. I do not want to do the latter and he will not tolerate it, but thankfully, this new exercise feels far from confining. The new balance achieved is quite liberating!
Quality over quantity.
Short, meaningful lessons reinforcing our new practice.
As winter approaches and we wind down for the year, that is my goal.
I am so impressed by what Harley knows and what he can do. Counter canter is coming along. We have a new, more balanced approach to lengthenings. After our outside-rein work, he offered super straight leg yields, very correct feeling shoulder-in, and haunches-in with no more than a hint and a suggestion from me. I will allow him to practice some more flying changes before the ground freezes, but what is really important is the basic work. Getting everything as correct as possible, my position and Harley's. For balance. For health. For longevity. For enjoying each other's company.
And, maybe, for the occasional horse show. ;)
Oh, and how many times can a rider rediscover the outside rein?
I have certainly lost count.
Here's to many more!