I have a made it a personal tradition to always ride on the first of the year. Long before Harley and when I was still in college, my riding teacher invited me to come out and ride my giant mare in the snow on New Year's Day. Since the farm did not have access to trails of any kind, this was a special treat, with or without the snow. We rode in a group of five or so, every horse went out, and my mare jigged and sassy-stepped the entire way, but I loved every minute of it. Trail riding used to be something that I only got to do on vacations. I am very lucky to have trail access where I am now, and a trusty trail horse, of course.
From that day forward, I decided to try to always ride on the first of the year. This is much easier now that I have Harley and I get to say things like "Best ride all year!" and "I have to go the barn, because I haven't ridden since last year!". Those never get old. ;)
We had a very productive ride today, with lots of variety. We started off with a little hack around the yard. Harley likes those. Walking outside the arena is always good for the mind.
Then we went inside the ring, and marched (slowly) on a loose rein. We walked little figure eights with a full arc in his body from his nose to his tail. His neck looks really long when he walks with it stretched out in the turns. It is amazing how he can turn into a neat, little package when he collects his frame, although he also turns into a not-so-nice little package when he is really tight. Those days seem to be almost forgotten, now.
After walking with contact and starting to ask him to carry himself more, we revisited a lateral movement called "turn on the forehand in motion". This is an excellent exercise, which I believe is not widely practiced. I learned it from Dr. Thomas Ritter, when I had the pleasure of riding with him (twice) and by auditing many of his clinics in New Jersey. He produced a two-part video series on riding this deceptively challenging exercise, which was the best possible explanation of the exercises outside of him standing there and teaching you in person. Unfortunately, the videos are no longer available for viewing, but at least check out some of his articles. I have read most of them more times that I can remember. They are that good.
Turn on the forehand in motion is just that. Instead of planting the front end and walking the hindlegs around the front, the horse must turn his entire body. His front feet inscribe a smaller arc than his hind feet as he steps sideways and around a central point. The horse's body is like the radius of a circle with the center of the circle several feet in front of his ears. Those lovely videos were a much better means of explanation...
Even though it has been a long time since we played around with this exercise, Harley seemed to remember what to do after an attempt in each direction. I found that he was much easier off my right leg, although he tended to try and step backward to avoid the exercise if I did not think forward to the outside rein. Once we got moving, he was almost on autopilot (good memory, Harley). From my left leg, we had initial issues. I started losing him through the right shoulder immediately. I recognized this as rider error. I centered my seat and weight distribution and straightened his body before our second attempt. I kept my outside rein steady and used my left lower leg and seat bone to ask for sideways movement. A couple taps from the whip were also required to further convince him to work gently through his own stiffness. I love this exercise, because it is challenging, but also low impact and gentle. With short stretchy walks in between, the learning curve was very short and I had a much softer, compliant horse in both directions by the third repetition. I can feel how this exercise targets my effectiveness as a rider and Harley's obedience as the ridden horse. It also supples tight shoulders and hindquarters (all in one exercise) and reinforces the all important inside leg to outside rein concept. Perfection is not a prerequisite to the benefits of the movement.
We followed the lateral work with some rein backs. Walk back a few steps, then walk forward. Walk back a few steps and try to encourage him to reach into the bridle while walking backward and then keep that feel as we move forward again. This is challenging! I am not sure that we quite got it, but I did see an improvement in his frame through the transitions.
Next we warmed up the trot with some poles. I rarely trot Harley over poles under saddle. He loves trotting over poles on the line, but I usually do not take the time to set them up for a ride. Also, he tends to hollow over poles under saddle, which is counter productive. It has always kind of bothered me that he does that. Am I doing something wrong?
Today, there were three trot poles already set up. They looked too far apart, but I decided to trot over them just for fun. Harley pushed from behind and lifted himself over the poles with pretty, strong strides.
I brought him around again, and this time he cantered over them without touching a pole.
"Okay, now you are just playing around. Can you trot over them, or not?"
The third time around, I half-halted to ask him to stay in trot and he powered over them again with a lovely long neck and a "bloom" in front of his withers.
"Harley! That was TOO cool!"
He repeated the lovely pole work several times and then in the opposite direction. This was by far the best he has ever trotted over poles with me on him. It actually felt like the poles were helping him to achieve a better balance and encouraging him to push from behind and work over his back more. I know that poles are supposed to do that, but they have never felt like they were very helpful to my horse (except on the lunge line). After our ride, I went back to check the distance. They were a good foot or so farther apart than I normally place them. Five and a half to six of my feet in boots. I am definitely going to try that distance again. Harley was working so nicely over them.
We worked some transitions with a focus on keeping his back up and not popping off the contact in the canter depart. This seems to be a habit, which I have been ignoring subconsciously. The downward transition to trot is feeling really great, as highlighted at the end of the bloopers video. This has been our greatest accomplishment to date! He used to just run and tighten in anticipation of the next canter, even if I only asked him to canter once a ride, which was something that I used to do to dampen his intense need to anticipate. Now, he stays on the outside rein, and supports himself from behind into a lifted back. I can ask for a couple canter transitions in a row and he doesn't lose his cool or speed up. He is a new horse!
We ended with some flying changes, because he loves them and I am slowly breaking down the best way for me to prepare and ask him for them. I got a "bucky" change on the short diagonal (see Bloopers Video) and a very nice clean change from right to left after some canter half-pass right. His right canter has become so balanced and so easy, that this was not even a challenge. He just strides sideways and then I switch my legs and he changes. The left to right change is much less reliable and more difficult to setup, because his left canter is not as balanced. He gave me one nice one after several attempts and a walk break. I am more than happy with that, especially because I was not expecting to go back to canter. He has this uncanny ability to zero in on the goal, even when I am ready to let it go. He was determined to do the left to right change, which I could feel and see from his posture and attitude as soon as we went back to trot. I indulged him, because I like to take his input into consideration. He thinks about things and then comes back and does them. Sometimes the next ride, sometimes the same ride after a break. I try to learn from it. Was I doing something wrong and now he is showing me that he can do it when I am not blocking him somewhere? That might sound unbelievable, but that has been our training relationship for five years. We have a modest collection of ribbons and scores, but that is not why we ride and not really a good representation of our successes. That is my opinion, at least, and a happy partnership is worth the most to me.
You know what?
Best ride all year. ;)