Yesterday, I decided that I wanted to do something different with Harley. We rode on Monday and Wednesday with suppleness over the back and tempo as our main goals. It felt like he remembered our work from Monday by the second ride. We had some very nice trot work where I could feel the energy flowing right over his back, maybe better than I have even felt in him. There was an opportunity for him to tense up his back when another horse trotted by. He shortened his neck and tightened up, but this time I was able to coax him to stretch again with lots of leg taps and a steady outside elbow. I am certain that I tend to give in to him too often. I do not want to exert massive control over my horse, but I am not doing him any favors by dropping the support or giving him fuzzy boundaries. I need to be more responsible in this way as a rider. That is my personal goal.
The stretchy trot was better. He stayed slower in the tempo, but now I think that it was too slow and we lost the connection over his back. He was stretching down and forward, but I did not feel the energy coming over his back like I did earlier in the ride. I imagine that it will be very difficult to keep that energy without losing his balance forward in the stretch. This is going to be a challenge, but I think we will be much better for the practice. I coached myself into staying tall in the saddle. Leaning forward was not going to help him balance. Again, more responsibility on my part.
Back to yesterday...
...I thought about lungeing him, but I began picturing him doing his fast nose-to-the-ground trot. It is beautiful, but I thought that it would contradict our training goals at the moment. And then I remembered the long lines. We have only long lined once this summer and I had meant to do more. The summer is not getting any longer, so I decided to pull down the surcingle and go for it.
I made a change to my long lining technique. I finally decided to give up trying to hold the excess line in my left hand and just let the two lines drag behind me on the ground. I do not like this, but it did give me much better use of my hands and I could finally direct Harley through a figure eight without fumbling the lines. I was also able to be much softer with the rein cues and I could feel more, so that I knew when to give the rein forward and when to hold for support. Harley appreciated the change in technique and he went very well. He moved into the bridle and looked very round and beautiful. It was so neat to be able to "ride" my horse and see him at the same time. This is a major benefit to long lining. Unfortunately, taking pictures at the same time is beyond my capabilities.
I made some interesting observations. Harley moves nicely in the lines and rounds up while in gait stretching into the contact, but his first reaction is to break the connection in the upwards transitions. This was especially bad going into the canter, where he did a couple head flips that I would say were just plain disobedient. The other thing that I noticed was that when we took a walk break, rather than stretch evenly down with his neck, he rooted against the reins, jerking them through the rings in the surcingle. He continued to do this even though there was slack in the reins and I was not holding him. I tried tapping him forward to encourage him to stretch evenly and less abruptly. This helped a little, but I could see that this was a problem.
Is that bad behavior that should be corrected or is he objecting to the placement of the lines in surcingle?
I ran the lines through the lower ring which he has seemed happy with in the past. I tried the upper ring once and I got the impression that he "hated" it, but now I am wondering if the top would be better. It would be more similar to my hand position. I am a little concerned that the lower rings are pulling him down too much, disrupting his balance. Using the upper ring would also mean that the lines would not have to drape behind his hindquarters, which proved problematic when I had to half-halt strongly on the outside and I believe the line pinched him, because he kicked at it. Or was that just more freshness?
The long line work was very good for practicing transitions. I carefully maintained the contact and asked Harley to trot or canter. He was obedient about moving forward, but he wanted to flip his head, which I read as "tightening his back". My plan to change his habit was to gently sponge the outside rein as he was transitioning up. This worked and he showed me that he is capable of making the transition nicely and with a quiet position. Of course, this was easier going into the trot than the canter. I felt like I had to concentrate and focus completely to the get the timing right. I wanted to support him without restraining him or conflicting the upwards voice command.
The right lead canter was excellent. As close to perfect as I could have hoped. He was forward and round. It only took two transitions to quiet his neck/back tension and then he blew through his nose and seemed to enjoy himself. The trot between canters was light and easy to guide.
The left lead was more challenging. The canter itself was okay to pilot, still forward and relatively round, but the trot afterward was so heavy. Holy cow! He pretty much blew through my half-halts and barely stayed on a circle around me. That was when I had to half-halt so strongly on the outside rein that he kicked at the line. It was not pretty, but I was glad to have the opportunity to see what he looks like when he does that. We took a few circles in trot to settle down and feel balanced again; then we went back to the canter transitions. The canter felt much more controllable than the trot afterward. I had to really half-halt on the outside rein, while keeping the inside rein so that he didn't leave the circle. I also had to give the outside rein, so that he could bend around the circle, otherwise he had no where to go. It was very challenging and then I remembered later that this is only the second or third time that we have cantered in the long lines. He finally backed off in the trot and balanced himself instead of running like a freight train. I think that this is just one more thing that I need to be vigilant about under saddle. If he were someone else's horse that I was riding, I would not let him get away with that. From the ground, I felt like I was seeing him from a distance with a fresh perspective. Undersaddle, it did not feel the same way as it did from the ground. He was very, very strong and ignoring my equally strong requests to rebalance. We did improve by the end of the session, but I could see that this was good for us and we need to do more.
After a relaxing walk around the ring several times, I pulled his tack and let him eat some grass in the ring, so that I could wrap my lines before giving him a shower. I wondered if he would be upset with me for being hard on him and demanding that he maintain his frame or slow down. To my surprise, he walked up to me, completely tack free, and stood right next to me while I organized the equipment. I just kept petting him and telling what a good boy he was. I guess I thought he would be mad at me. It is tough when you love the horse you are training.