Friday, April 13, 2012

Riding Reflection: Four Barrels

As an adult rider with her own horse at a small farm, I do not have the opportunity for many lessons.  There are a slew of reasons, but the biggest two are finances and level of instruction and those two seem to build upon one another.  Better instruction costs more money, which means that I can only afford a small number of lessons each year.  Good instruction can also be difficult to find, which requires trailering your horse or hiring a trainer to come to you.  Neither of these two is cheap and seeing as how I drive a Honda Civic, which, by the way, does not come with a tow package, and am trailer-less, I must subscribe to the latter.  After years of less than delicate instruction, I am very, very picky about who I am willing to give my money to and I will only ride with an instructor whose philosophy melds well with my own.  This considerably reduces the trainer pool, but I am okay with that.  I do have an instructor who is reasonably-priced and whose expertise blows my mind, but unfortunately she lives out of state, so I only get to ride with her when she travels to the area for her usual group of private students.  This gives me the motivation to make the most of my lessons and leaves me on my own most of the time, which I like very much.  However, sometimes I just get the hankering for a lesson.  I want someone to give me an exercise that is substantial and let me tackle it.  Harley enjoys this too!

On our last ride I had that "lesson hankering".  It has been weeks since we have gotten in a good ride and months since our last lesson.  I did not want to work Harley's body really hard, but I did want to work his mind.  As luck would have it, someone else had set up four barrels in the arena, probably for another lesson.  Sometimes I get annoyed when there is stuff "in the way" when I am riding, but this time, I decided to embrace those barrels and make up a lesson for us.

Simple can still be interesting.

We started our trot warm up, moving around all four barrels.  Then I started picking barrels to circle around.  I picked them out ahead of time, so that I would have to prepare my horse, and I did not always choose the same barrel and I did not always make the same size circle.  Harley learns patterns very quickly, which I can use to my advantage, but sometimes I also like to make him wait and listen.

The circles started connecting the barrels with diagonals lines.  This was how I changed direction.  The barrels inscribed a little dressage arena where we were always changing direction and bend.  Harley had to stay on his toes, as did I.  I started to feel something interesting.  As we finished a small circle and began a new diagonal line.  I felt Harley dropping his weight onto his inside shoulder.  This was noticeable, because the turns were frequent and challenged him to keep changing his balance.  I want Harley's weight to stay more on his outside shoulder as he completes the circle so that he can lift his inside shoulder.

Then, I want him even in both reins and ready to shift his weight onto the new outside shoulder as he lifts the new inside shoulder.  This allows me to correctly turn him from the outside shoulder rather than ride from the inside of my horse, which compromises balance.

The simple barrel exercise had shown me something rather profound, as this shift in balance between his shoulders was also essential for the canter depart and the flying change.

In order to help him keep his weight on his outside shoulder a little longer at the end of each circle, I started taking a firm hold on the outside rein just as we approached the straight diagonal line.  I few times, he over corrected and sidestepped slightly at the beginning of the diagonal.  This was good, in my opinion, because he was stepping toward and into the outside rein, which gave me more influence on his outside shoulder.  I gently eased the pressure on the old outside rein and gradually increased the pressure on the new outside rein as we passed the midpoint of the short diagonal.  It was like passing the responsibility from one side to the other.  Harley's weight transferred accordingly and I checked my own balance to make sure that I was staying centered.  I did not actively shift my weight in the saddle, as that would tell his haunches to move around and I wanted him straight behind and continuing forward.  This exercise was almost entirely about his shoulders.

Compartmentalizing your horse's body is very similar to separating your own aids making them independent.

When Harley and I got the coordination down, I started adding in the canter after the straight diagonal line.  I wanted him to shift his weight onto the new outside shoulder before he picked up the canter.  This allowed him to lift smoothly into the lead and with a nice gentle bend in his ribcage.  I cantered around half the barrels, returned to trot, assessed his outside shoulder, and began the next diagonal.  Just like in a lesson with a ground person, Harley was totally on.  He understood the task, figured it out, and was ready for the next phase.  When he picked up the right lead early on the diagonal and before a left turn, I knew we were on the same page, paragraph, and sentence.  I chose not to move my legs as this can sometimes block his efforts.  I just paid attention to turning his outside shoulder, sent my intentions left, and... 

...collected flying change, in perfect rhythm!  He stayed in the bridle, his butt did not pop up, and I felt him switch all four legs and land softly on the new lead.  It felt great!  I praised him with pats and "Good Boy's" while enjoying a very engaged left lead canter for half a circle.  Then we came back to walk for a break.

That was the same beautiful change that he did on the trail last week.  He is getting so much more organized and much less poppy (Check out the 2011 Bloopers video to see just how much pop he can muster!)

As we walked I pondered the ultimate training question.  Do I end on that excellent effort or try the other side?  There have been many times where I chose to end it, but this time I decided that the exercise was in our favor.  We should go for it.  Harley has more difficulty changing clean in this direction.  He switches behind pretty easily, but tends to switch in front a stride late.  If I send him really forward along the diagonal, he is more likely to get it clean, but he also gets strung out, so I am trying to back away from that strategy.  When I ask in a figure eight, he almost gets it, but sometimes it feels like half a stride late in front and I am not sure if he is landing correctly but extremely softly or putting a foot down and then switching his shoulders.  Now you see why this shoulder exercise was so groundbreaking!

I picked up the reins and started a left-hand circle around the barrels.  Harley's energy let me know that he was still onto the game, but it came with some tension, so I circled and made a few transitions to walk so that he softened his neck and back again.  I whispered for him to canter and he smoothly lifted off.  I checked the outside rein connection and felt for his outside hind landing in my outside hand.  I can feel this if the horse is really stepping into the rein.  He was with me, so we casually approached the diagonal.  I asked him to wait with the outside shoulder and he did.  He gave me those ears that said, "I am going for it."  I kept my legs passive again, and as we began the right turn around the barrel, I felt him push off with a grunt and...

...he landed on the right lead.  All four feet!  The maneuver had clearly taken some thought and physical effort on his part and for a second it felt like he was motionless in the stride.  I gently supported with my legs, now in the new canter position, and he pushed himself forward in the right lead canter.

I cheered for him and he immediately came to a halt as I dropped the reins, patting both sides of his neck.  We turned for the gate to add a crescendo to his praise.

"You're done!  You did it, Harley!"  What a great lesson!



  1. Great exercise! It's always good to keep it interesting and he figured it out. Such a good boy, I would have ended with that high note too. I see more barrel work in his future.

  2. That is SUPER awesome. I LOVE those quiet days of success. I too, am in your shoes, with boarding at a VERY small facility, no trailer, way to get to one, etc. I am having a Parelli trainer come out at the end of the month in hopes that Laz can handle it for 2 hours! Great job with your barrel set up, and mental set up. Harley is just TOO handsome :) Literally, he's coloring is too perfect!

    1. Glad we can commiserate. It is really tough to get a trainer out for one client, so good work!

      Thanks, again, for your kind words about my boy. :)

  3. Go Harley! Way to improvise Val! Your creativity and attention to detail was well rewarded. What a productive session. :)

    I can relate to the no-trainer woes too. I try to look at it as a positive, in that we are compelled to be very responsible in the saddle, perhaps more that we would when we have a trusted expert with us on the ground.

    Nonetheless, I would kill for a proper lesson. ;)

    1. Thanks, Calm, Forward, Straight.
      And, I hear you!

  4. Wow, this is another one of those posts that makes me want to print your blog into a book so I can study it. You always give me so many things to think about :)


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