I rode Harley on Wednesday with no plan. No objective. I just wanted to ride, give him some exercise and enjoy myself. We were only able to ride like three times in February last year. The fact that the weather was mild enough and the ground was soft enough to ride was a gift. I did not expect us to work. I thought my horse would be happy with that idea.
Harley had other plans.
We started out walking around on a long rein and then moved up to trotting. He was a good boy in the bridle, but not very energetic. This went well with my relaxed attitude. I figured that Harley was relaxed, too.
He loves to tell me when I am wrong, and, boy, was I ever wrong. Since he felt sluggish in trot, I decided to canter a bit to get his body moving. My horse wasn't relaxed. He was bored! Once I asked him to canter, he decided to take the ride in a more exciting direction. Harley started to hop. He likes to hop in the canter stride, because it lengthens his hang time. He does that when he wants to change leads "on his own". Next, he tightens his neck and pops his butt up while switching behind. Usually when he does this, he changes late in front or not at all, which leaves us in a cross-canter. I can initiate a change in bend and ask him to lift his shoulders which changes his front legs, so that he is not cross-firing, but that is not a nice way to change leads. He repeated this stunt, over and over again. In both directions. Sometimes starting to run while disunited, which is just madness and very unpleasant. At one point, I think that he wanted to take off. Seriously? I can ride through an awful lot of shenanigans. I kind of pride myself in being able to just sit chilly while encouraging the horse to do the right thing, but when I felt his nose flip up and a strong dig behind I stopped him immediately. It could have been a loss of balance as much as anything else. He was being really goofy. I mean cross-cantering is not great under the best circumstances. Acting goofy and cross-cantering is just foolhardy. I am glad that I can trust my instincts to kick in when it counts. The stop got his attention and then I instantly cantered him on with renewed vigilance.
My dilemma was simple. I had a horse who needed to work, but he also had a thick winter coat, which was going to get sweaty before very long. My horse was being really naughty at the canter, so I had to keep cantering him, lest he should think his silliness was acceptable, but I did not have the time to really work him. I am not referring to my time. I am talking about his. If I rode him in canter for too long, he would perspire way too much for a winter night outside. If I did not ride him in canter long enough, he might think that his antics were acceptable "horse improvisations".
I had to be efficient. I had to work quickly. I steadied my seat. I encouraged him to stretch into the contact by keeping my seat in contact with the saddle all the way to the end of each stride. I kept an encouraging inside leg on to try and get him to relax his back. If he hopped, I increased his bend from my outside leg (Yes, mid-air! He can be challenging sometimes.), so that he would still land on the same lead and then I continued forward. If he managed to change behind, I immediately changed him back through trot. I saw the sweat beginning to build on his neck. We worked a little longer and then finally, he let go and relaxed. The left lead came first and the right lead was soon to follow. I had to be really careful not to tighten up in an effort to control him by force, as this made matters worse. I also had to stay really centered in the saddle. Any shift in weight was an invitation to change leads like a bunny rabbit. I was able to end the ride before too much damage was done, but I still did a fair amount of towel drying. I am so glad that I bought him a cooler this year.
Friday evening, I rode him again, but this time I had learned my lesson. Harley does not want to take it easy. Harley does not like to just mosey around. Or maybe he has just had his fill of that for a while. Winter is a drag, for both of us. For everyone.
I gave him a job to do from the very beginning. Almost as soon as we started trotting, I asked for leg yield and then some shoulder-in. When we got to canter, I was ready with a figure-eight pattern on the diagonal. I required that he change through trot and move straight between each circle, only picking up the new lead when he had completely changed his bend. The left lead slowed down. The right lead started to sing, as I felt him really push up with his topline.
Harley was happy as a clam. He attempted a few hops in the beginning and then forgot about them. I kept him really busy and then I realized how little I have been asking of him lately. I have barely even been working circles. I do not need to work his body to the point of getting him lathered in the cold weather, but I do need to continue to challenge his brain.
Message received, Harley. And glad to hear it.