Improvements since our last lesson:
Harley's neck muscles and posture
His straightness and forwardness
His willingness to seek the bit on his own
I am finding the center of my horse more quickly
My legs are staying forward more consistently
My seat is closer to my horse and I am staying upright more consistently
My arm and hand position have improved
Things to continue working on:
Strengthening Harley's hindend
Stretching the base of his crest just in front of the withers
Allowing Harley to make the connection for me
Keeping a bend in my elbows and an upward feel to my forearms and hands
Keeping my shoulders down and loose even when I raise my forearms
Encouraging mobility and flexibility in Harley's ribcage by keeping my leg muscles loose and mobile
My teacher prescribed some interesting exercises in this lesson. She could see the effects of our work since the last lesson. She also liked my image of Harley's hindlegs stepping forward through my stomach, which has, no doubt, helped my posture in the saddle. The typical way of beginning a lesson is she tells me to ride and then sees the next thing that she wants to work on with us. This usually takes all of thirty seconds and this lesson was no different. Even though I have been working diligently to keep my forearms light and up, there is still a downward tendency in my inside hand, particularly the left side. This downward tendency goes "hand-in-hand" with collapsing left, my natural inclination. One of my teacher's strategies is to exaggerate the postural correction, so that the rider's body must abandon the original habit and recalibrate. I like this technique very much and find it to be quite effective.
So my prescribed activity, was to bend my elbows so that my hands were tapping my sternum; she wanted my hands moving. This means that I had to let the reins slide almost to the buckle. She called this "praying mantis". This position kept my upper arm parallel to my sides and helped my shoulders stay down. Since I was totally unable to "make" any contact with the rein, Harley had the opportunity to initiate the connection. In this position, it was also basically impossible for me to tighten across my shoulder blades when Harley did pick up the bit. This was the recipe for recalibrating my riding habits.
So while riding around with this rather silly arm position, I also had to stay in the middle of my horse and keep him traveling straight around the circle. No rein aids allowed! I figured out how to shift my weight and ask Harley to follow my center of gravity around the circle. I ride like this, to some extent, all the time, but the experience is amplified when you are prevented from using the reins for guidance. Remarkably, I felt Harley straighten and rebalance himself very effectively using this technique. He also tuned into his hind end in some startling ways. All the rein supports had been removed and this was very challenging for me to ride at times. When he shifted back and powered off of his hind feet, it felt really unsettling, even a little out of control at first. I was pushed and tipped off center many times. It is difficult to have been a rider for so long and just allow this to happen, especially when I know that I could hold everything together if I made the contact instead. Thankfully, before too long, we found our rhythm and our balance. Harley demonstrated some genuine self-carriage. No half-halts, driving, or holding required. Years ago, I would not have thought that possible without more boundaries and control from me. It was so cool.
Once Harley picked up the connection, I was allowed to let my forearms lower toward his mouth, but I had to be very careful not to let my shoulders tighten. The next exercise was in two parts. "Part 1" was to push my hands forward toward his mouth. I had to try to keep some bend in my elbows and not lean forward with my arms. To compensate, my teacher told me to lean back. This directive kept me straight in the saddle and allowed me to support my horse with my posture as I offered for him to follow the bit forward. This was really tough at first and moreso to the left. Everything is easier going to the right, which interestingly, is Harley's less bendy side.
Once I was able to push my hands forward without surrendering my position, I kept my outside rein for tempo control and "stirred" my inside hand toward his nose. This was "Part 2". Again, this was more challenging to the left and Harley seemed to be working against me by rooting forward abruptly. This was frustrating for me, because I felt like it was preventing me from offering him the rein. My teacher said that he does this when he feels my shoulders tighten. If my shoulders stay soft then he is less likely to push against them. There was no need for him to force his nose forward, because I was inviting his nose forward by moving my hands toward the bit and moving the inside rein in a circle toward his nose. I wish that I could tell him that! Eventually, he became steadier, but that habit is going to take a long time to dissolve. Putting more responsibility on him to make the connection with me and carry himself should help.
By the end of the lesson, we had changed directions a few times in big loopy figure eights. I was completely absorbed in my position, when my teacher brought to my attention the softness we had achieved. Every muscle in my body and every muscle in his body felt quiet and without tension. I looked at his neck (which means I had not been staring at it already, yay!) and he was very clearly stretching the base of his neck in a beautiful "bloom". I could feel our center beneath us. I could feel my shoulders soft. I want that again! I want to ride like that all the time! And now I have some insights and exercises to get us a little bit closer to that magic.
My teacher took these video clips and very kindly sent them to me. It was late so the lighting is not great, but you can get a little taste of what my lessons with her are like. These clips are of the "stirring" exercise going to the left. You can see us both struggle between figuring out the exercise and experiencing its effects. The exercise looks simple, but it was very challenging!