Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Riding Reflection: Half-pass From The Center

Continued from Sideways From The Center

Unfortunately, our next ride together was on a very hot day.  Cantering was out of the question and I kept a very close eye on Harley's neck sweat.  What I wouldn't give for a covered arena!  Thankfully, we can have a lot of fun at just the walk and trot and we could certainly continue our experiment of riding from the center.

We spent a good amount of time walking on a long rein and then picked up the reins and practiced some halts.  I still tried to think about my center initiating the movement, even if the movement was a stop.  Sinking my bellybutton helped me to communicate that I wanted to halt; lifting my bellybutton up and forward started him walking again.  Harley also leg yielded very easily from my center, just like our last ride.  To conserve energy and shorten out time in the sun, we did not practice many repetitions.

Basically, I asked "Do you remember?"

He said, "Yup.  Like this."

I said, "Good Boy, let's trot."

In trot, I also kept the warm up short.  We rode a few circuits in each direction and a few transitions, until he felt even in both reins and honestly forward.  After a mini walk break, I asked him to trot and I kept my seat.  We came down the quarter line with my bellybutton straight ahead, and then I turned my center to the rail.  My inside leg rested against his side.  Harley leg yielded without hesitation.  We tried a couple in each direction and then I was eager to try the half-pass before we both melted.

I like to ride half-pass from a small half circle on the long side returning to the track.  Something that I noticed right away was that when I turned my bellybutton to make the half circle, Harley started to leg yield.  Maybe I was turning my center to abruptly?  Too sharp an angle?  I did not correct him, because the mistake was definitely mine, an error in communication and something that I would have to work out.  Our next half circle was successful, so as we approached the track I turned my belly button to the fence while keeping my legs in half-pass position.  I felt Harley assume a gentle bend in his body and bring his hindquarters into the direction of the movement as he moved laterally toward the rail.  Good Boy!

Here are my observations after a number of repetitions:

  1. It is difficult to keep my bellybutton facing the fence while my inside leg is forward and my outside leg is back.  I did feel very tall and balanced, but the position was awkward and needs revisiting.  I am not sure if I am doing something wrong or if the correct position just feels funny right now.
  2. Harley was able to maintain his forwardness into the movement with a gentle bend in his body.
  3. My horse felt like he was dictating how much bend he could cope with and still perform the movement, rather than me trying to control his position.
  4. I needed to use taps from the whip to remind him to maintain his impulsion.  My legs were telling him what we were doing, but if I tried to give an impulsion aid with my outside leg the opposite happened.
  5. I bend and raise my right leg too much when we are moving to the left.   This is my tight leg and side, so I have to remember to keep it down next time.  I could feel that this upset the balance, but that habit is so old (and so difficult to dissolve!).
  6. My reins seemed to take on a new role.  Harley turned his face toward the rail on his own.  I have always felt that half-pass is a more comfortable motion for the horses than leg yield.  It is physically challenging, but I think that the act of moving and looking where you are going makes much more sense.  Since my reins were not really asking him to turn his nose, I found that he was kind of searching with his neck for my end of the contact.  I had to make sure that I was not floating around and dropping the contact when he needed my support.  Sometimes I asked for more impulsion and waited from him to find me at the end of the rein.  Other times, I had to adjust the rein length or change my hand position by opening or raising a rein.  A couple times, when we found each other in the contact I felt him lift his shoulders.  I do not know if the shift in balance would have been very noticeable, but the feeling was quite dramatic and sudden.  My teacher would have noticed!  She doesn't miss a thing.  ;)
  7. With repetition, Harley became more and more attuned to my seat.  I had to start riding with great care, because he tried to interpret any turn or shift of my center.  This is something that I want to encourage, but this meant that I had to control my body.  A couple times, we went to half circle and he started to half-pass from the rail.  This is much more difficult (psychologically) than half-pass to the rail so I was happy, but glaringly aware that I was still creating too much noise with my seat.
  8. Harley interprets my bellybutton rocking backwards as a signal to collect and this makes him want to canter.  This happened entirely by accident.  I did not initially test this on purpose, but must have shifted my center to regain my own balance.  Harley collected his trot, raising his shoulders a bit, and then I felt very strongly from him that he wanted to canter.  Or he thought that I was about to ask him to canter.  I told him "No, it is too hot", but then started to purposefully shift my center to see if he would collect.  He did, but still thought that I would like to canter.  There is no doubt that he was fishing, because he always likes to canter!  I thanked him for his attentiveness, but confirmed that I wanted only to trot.  I am very excited about this, because I always feel that my outside leg, in asking for canter, disrupts the balance as we depart.  To depart only from the seat would be marvelous and now seems to be a real possibility.

Half-pass left

These stills are from a later ride.

I was feeling more comfortable with the position.  My right leg is more relaxed.

This post was much longer than our actual ride.  We ended just as he started sweating on his neck.  I do not want to over do it before we have even entered July.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lungeing in the Rain

Let it rain!  We need the moisture.  Our lawn and flowers were thirsty and I am sure the wells on the farm were thirsty. 

Home from the barn

My flower garden

Through the rain drops
Rain does not stop Harley and me.  I like to trim feet on rainy days, especially if the hooves have gotten a little soak.  The rasp cuts through much more easily, reducing the time and effort required for four over-sized pedicures.  Today was not a trimming day, though.  We did a fair amount of sitting trot and canter work yesterday, so I wanted to give his back a rest.  Time to lunge!

Harley felt great on the line.  He adjusted his stride to match the trot poles from the very first attempt.  His canter transitions were smart and relaxed.  He cantered from my own body hopping into canter.  I tried taking slow relaxed strides like a large pirouette in the center.  I am happy to report that Harley watched this and slowed his tempo and adopted more self carriage.  I dare say that I was collecting my horse this way.  We both trotted right before the poles.  He did not miss a beat, even as the large rain drops spotted his coat.  The left lead was also very nice.  He picked up the outside lead a couple times on the circle, but was attentive enough to drop back to trot and pick up the inside lead before the poles.  His neck carriage was lovely.  I especially liked seeing his eye on me, although once I think he was saying, "I would be dry in my shed right now."  The rain was intermittent at that point, so we really just got a little sprinkle now and then.

We tried a couple different things in both directions.  After some canter-trot transitions over the poles, I let him trot down the long side.  At first, I watched him keep the same stride length, then I tried to ask him to lengthen.  I tried clucking.  I tried tossing the whip a little.  Both of these things did elicit a response from him, but the response was more energy and a faster tempo.  This was a good response, just not exactly what I wanted.  One time he cantered, which I liked, because that meant he was slowing his legs down and adding more energy.  So where did I go from there?  My own steps.  I took bigger steps as he trotted down the long side.  I also tapped the whip in the air in rhythm with his steps.  I think that these things helped, because he did lengthen a little.  I need to return to this, so that I can figure out what I am doing.  Then I can be clear. 

After a couple good tries we returned to the circle.  Harley had a nice solid connection to the lunge line.  His neck was probably the most consistent that I have ever seen on the lunge line.  His neck was long from the middle of his shoulders and his poll was released but with an open throatlatch.  I tested the connection by combing the lunge line with my free hand.  I reached forward and took the line and then gently let the line slide through my fingers.  I invited Harley to provide resistance to slide the line through my hand.  He did this happily and this was where I saw the stability of his head and neck.  He was carrying his body as a unit.  His neck was not snaking around to the side or raising with a hollow back.  He will do both these things very quickly, if I chase him with my aids or lose my sense of groundedness or tighten my shoulders against the line. 

Harley loves the vibration that travels down the line when I comb the rein or line with my hands.  He seems to like the feel of an elastic rein.  My teacher noted this, the last time we saw her.  He likes there to be a give to the line, but still with a connection.  When I have it right, I can feel his head gently oscillate from side to side as he moves.  I can also feel him swallow or lick his lips.  These little movements send a vibration back to me.  The connection felt so solid that I challenged him to come in to a smaller circle.  I combed the line, but let less slip through my fingers.  I kept a trotting energy in my body and continued to comb the line as he moved around me.  You can do it, Harley.  He was up for the challenge.  He adjusted his strides for the smaller circle and raised his head and neck a little, but kept this nice soft lift in his back.  His steps became springy.  I let the line slide and he returned to a larger circle, stretching his nose to the ground as he trotted.  From time to time the rain fell on us, but we did not care. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Signs of Summer Around the Farm

My husband purchased a new Canon Powershot to replace our original Canon.  We bought the older Powershot S50 in 2004 and it is still taking great photos.  Unfortunately the sliding door, which protects the lens and turns the camera on and off is barely able to slide on its track.  The camera is also huge by digital camera standards, kind of like my last cell phone.  I will continue to use the original from time to time, but it is very nice to have a new and improved model.  What better place to try out the new camera than on the farm?  I did not realize how creatively the barn owners have decorated the place, until I started looking for photo opportunities.  You might also see Harley and our resident Icelandic Horse.  Enjoy!



Sunday, June 26, 2011

Riding Reflection: Sideways From The Center

In the previous Riding Reflection, I wrote about Redisovering Impulsion and riding from my bellybutton as work transferred from an awesome groundwork lesson.  In the lesson, we experimented with leg yielding from my position on the ground, my energy and my intent.  The next time that I rode, I decided to try using my center to initiate sideways motion from my horse.

First, we tried the experiment in walk.  I asked Harley to give me sufficient energy and impulsion so that he felt "with me".  I also tried to be "with him" by providing my own energy and keeping a feel of importance in my body.  With this mutual attention, we walked down the quarter line.  I made a point to make sure that my bellybutton was facing straight ahead, then I deliberately turned my bellybutton toward the fence.  Harley took a couple diagonal steps, forwards and sideways.  I praised him and straightened my bellybutton again.  He stopped leg yielding and walked straight ahead.  This was surprisingly easy, but only because of the preparation before this ride.

We repeated the activity in the other direction, with similar results.  I tried walking a staircase.  Two steps sideways, four steps forwards, two sideways, etc.  Harley was not losing his hindend or over-bending.  He was remaining balanced, listening for the change from my center, and staying relaxed in the bridle.  I tried a couple zigzags.  A couple steps to the left, straight, a couple steps to the right, and so on.  We had tried those before, but they were tricky to do without losing impulsion or over-bending.  Lightness and impulsion were the first to go.  The zag after the zig was tough and I always felt like I needed too much leg when we changed direction.  By using my center, the movement came much more easily.  I felt Harley arranging his balance over his feet.  I still used my inside leg to support the direction, but my center initiated the sideways and this seemed to make a big difference, especially when we straightened and then leg yielded the other way.  If it felt like I needed to use my legs to keep him going, I tapped gently with the whip.

Next, we moved into trot and after a warm-up with some transitions, we tried to go sideways from my center.  I was careful to post on the inside diagonal, so as not to give leg aids that conflicted with my bellybutton.  I tried to use as little leg as possible and initiate the movement from my center.  These results did not come as readily as in walk.  I remembered that the dance would not work without sufficient impulsion, so I asked Harley for some more.  It took a couple tries to get the right combination of energy and direction, but when we did find it, Harley felt very light on his feet.

During one of our better sideways attempts in trot, I realized once again that my teacher was very clever.  By turning my bellybutton to initiate the leg yield, I was rotating to the outside rendering it impossible to collapse to the same side as my directional leg.  I had to laugh a little.  Oh look!  I am rotating out again!

We tried the zigzag in rising trot, but this got complicated.  I tried keeping the same posting diagonal, but found that I was ineffectually using more leg again.  I changed my posting diagonal between changes of direction and this worked much better, but I felt like there was too much noise in the most difficult part of the pattern.  After a break, I went to sitting trot and then it all came together.  With my seat in the saddle, Harley could feel my change in center very easily.  Much less leg was required to support the sideways movement, so he found it easier to maintain his impulsion.  The best was when I shifted my center and I felt him collect his hindquarters and bring them into the direction of the movement.  My center was telling him to half-pass.  I like the way you think, Harley.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Memoirs: A New Horse Scares His Girl

Unable to blink and with my guts twisted, I stare at my horse.  His body is draped over the panels of the round pen, with his front legs hooked around the top rail like a cat grasping the side of the vet's examination table.  His hind legs are mostly touching the ground, but he is still awkwardly dangling from the now crushed aluminum panels.  I thank the heavens that aluminum crushes instead of splintering, as I wonder how on Earth my horse has found himself in this predicament.  I have been a horse owner for approximately twenty-four hours, after twenty-four years of dreaming, and now I fear that my new horse is badly injured, hanging from the fence.


I took Harley on trial for one week before I purchased him.  I knew by the second day that he would be mine.  On Saturday, December 9, 2006, I paid the previous owner his asking price, the deal was officiated with a hand-written contract, and at last, I had my horse!  I was over the moon.  I kissed my horse.  I brushed him with brushes that had been purchased long before his birth date and already possessed the hairs of many beloved ponies.  I started detangling his long, dreadlocked tail.  I clipped a white cotton lead rope, with purple ribbon braided into the line, to his halter, a gift from a childhood friend who knew that I would have a use for it someday.  I watched him eat his dinner and I felt the tears well up.  I had waited so long for this moment.  Every birthday and Christmas since I was three years old, I had wished for a horse.  I would imagine him in my backyard on Christmas morning, with a red bow in his mane.  Every year that I checked the backyard, I would feel this twinge of excitement before the blinds parted.  Maybe, just maybe.  Finally, I was no longer dreaming.  My horse was flesh and blood, standing before me, munching his hay, twitching his delicate ears, just waiting to start his life with me.  I looked at his shaggy winter coat, bony shoulders, and straggly forelock.  He was the most beautiful horse I had ever seen.

On day one of horse ownership, I decided that it would be best to start with some groundwork.  Harley was broke to ride, but it was clear that he was going to be a "project horse", so I wanted to establish some trust and communication before requiring too much under saddle.  I had previously received some instruction on training in the round pen.  I learned to use my body language and the whip to encourage the horse to go and stop, change direction, and walk next to me without a halter.  I had spent most of my round pen experience working with a very lazy horse, but Harley was quite the opposite, which would necessitate great tact.

Once in the round pen, I led Harley around to get him used to the work space.  I petted him and talked to him.  Then I removed his halter and clucked.  He trotted off without hesitation.  I let him move at his own pace as I watched from the center.  At this point we had known each other for one week.  I had been very kind to him, but we did not have a working relationship.  According to his previous owner, he had not been under saddle for years.  Harley was an eight-year-old greenie with a good heart and head, but very little formal training and unknown informal training, whatever that may include.  As he trotted, he picked his legs up quite high and held his face and neck towards the outside of the pen.  His back and neck were tight, and his tail was slightly raised like an Arabian.  I waited for him to show signs of relaxation, but nothing noticeable changed.  He did not lick and chew.  He did not drop his head or slow down.  After more time passed, I carefully stepped ahead of his drive line, which is an imaginary line approximately perpendicular to the point of the shoulder.  He slammed on the brakes and swung his hindquarters to the inside of the pen.  This is not considered a respectful stop from the horse.  Ideally, he should turn his shoulders toward the center and his hindquarters away from the handler, but, clearly, Harley had not read the manual.  I did not correct his body position, because I like to focus on one thing at a time.  He had stopped and was relatively calm, so I left him alone.  Slowly and without moving his body, he turned his head and neck around to look at me.  This 180-degree stretch and look would become a characteristic move for Harley, something that he does now in the cross ties, long lines, or when munching hay in the paddock.

I praised him and pointed with my arm to the right.  I looked at his hindquarters and clucked.  He was back in trot, but in the new direction.  He still looked tight and tense, but he was giving me an ear.  I could work with that.  We repeated the stop, wait and turn several times.  He started stopping less suddenly, I started understanding how much cue to give him, and so we slowly progressed.  After a little while, we gained an audience.  One of the barn owners stopped by on the gas-powered gator.  The barn owner immediately noticed that my horse was not stopping with the correct position by yielding his hindquarters.  I told him that we were working on it (really we weren't yet), but I guess that he was not impressed, because he offered to work with him for five minutes.  My barn owner is a very kind person and only wanted to help us, but my perspective was that I did not wait twenty-four years to buy my horse to watch someone else work with him.  Mistake or victory, I wanted the experience.  If my horse needed 15 minutes or 15 months, I was prepared to let him have his time to learn and trust me.  I felt a little aggravated, but I tried to hide it.  Just because I could not train my horse in thirty minutes like the cowboys at the Expo did not mean that we were not doing something worthwhile.  I decided to politely ignore the comments.

Finally, my patience paid off and we were left to our training journey.  I was just cuing my horse to move off to the right again, when the gator engine started up with a loud rattle.  Faster than my eyes could register, Harley leaped into the air.  My horse was trying to jump out of the five-foot round pen!  Seconds seemed like hours, as he scrambled on the aluminum bars.  I did not want to look, but I could not look away.  He wrestled his front legs free and returned to the ground.  I was petrified.  What did I do to my new horse?  Did he injure himself?  Would he ever trust me after this?

I approached him carefully, afraid that he would take flight again.  I tried not to look into his eye, as I felt him looking at me.  I could hear him blowing through his nose.  The skin over his muscles was taunt.  I touched his shoulder and he shuddered, but then relaxed and allowed me to examine him.  My fingers groped his legs nimbly.  I scanned his body with my eyes as I ran my hands over every inch of him.  Except for a large tuft of hair removed from his chest, he was unharmed.  Even the lost hair did not result in a scrape or raw skin.  Harley had survived with a close shave.

The round pen was not as lucky, but two hundred dollars later, the pen would be good as new.  This was not exactly the welcome to horse ownership that I had been expecting, bills and all.  I suppose trial by fire was as good an initiation as any and, before long, Harley did make peace with the round pen.  Thankfully, he did not seem to hold the situation against me.  What could have ended in tragedy became a small hiccup in our progress without lasting effects except for the lesson impressed upon me:  Respect the power and unpredictability of the horse.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Barefoot Horse: Summer Trim

I trimmed Harley's feet on the first day of summer.  Ironically, it was not as hot as many of our spring days have been.  It is a lot worse to trim feet than it is to ride on really hot days, so I decided to trim now and ride the next time that I see him.  I generated these photo comparisons in the best, free computer program ever: Paint!

Comparison of the front feet before and after the trim

Comparison of the hind feet before and after the trim
The weather has gone from rainy and muddy to dry and hot very quickly.  His frogs are thrush-free now and have fattened up some since the spring.  The central sulcus on each foot has widened and is clean.  The left hind developed an asymmetrical crease that worked its way up the frog toward the apex.  I treated with Absorbine thrush remedy, holding the foot up so the solution could drain into the crease.  The infection was stubborn, but is finally gone.  He did not show great tenderness while I was treating it, but he did pull his foot away a couple times.  In motion, he was fine, but this is a good, minor (thankfully) example of how bacterial or fungal infections can eat the frog and cause pain.  We are lucky enough to have 24/7 turnout, with stall time only for meals, but perpetual mud is still enough to allow thrush to take hold of the frog.

I am very happy with the way his heels have strengthened.  They used to be less wide, like they were not doing their share of the weight-bearing.  Now, the heels are much more robust, with the exception of the medial heel on the right hind.  This is also the foot that I have to remind him to keep under his body in left lead canter or his balance dissolves.  As his balance under saddle has improved, so have his heels.  This begs the question "Which came first, good balance or good heels?"

Fronts done with a nice bevel

Then the hinds

Petite profile determined by the horse, not the trimmer

Very cute, Harley
There was not much to take off these feet, but if I allow them to go much longer than two weeks, the outer walls begin cracking, attempting to self trim.  The white line also begins to stretch if I let this happen.  If we had a larger variety of surfaces (Some pea gravel would be nice!) and a paddock system that encouraged movement, he would probably be able to self-trim.  I do not consider roadwork in our area, because too many people race down the country road like it is the highway.  I would happily trade rasping-time for saddle-time if there was a quiet road to walk along.

Are we done yet?

Seriously.  I want carrots now.

Harley likes to do a little of his own trimming.

Buckskin highlights

My Love

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rider Confessions

Happy First Day of Summer!

Rider Confession #1:
I used to ride until I was dehydrated.   

This was when I was a teenager and in my early twenties.  I remember getting off the horse, both of us covered in sweat, and my abdomen seizing up.  I very nearly blacked out a couple times and often felt like I was going to be sick.  I was just lucky that my lesson horse never tied up, but I nearly did.  Have you ever experienced a "Charlie Horse" in a hamstring muscle?  How about both hamstrings at the same time?

Looking back, I wish that my instructor had moderated our workout by forcing more breaks.  She did hand me my water bottle during the lesson, but I probably should have been taking electrolytes, too.  In her defense, I would not cancel a lesson just because the sun was blazing into the 90's and our arena was uncovered.  Maybe she thought that I would learn my lesson and start regulating my own saddle time to accommodate health concerns.  This possibility just occurred to me now, so I guess that I failed the "hands-on" learning approach.  Now that I have Harley and ten more years under my belt, I am much more conscious of hydration and keeping both of us healthy in the summer months.  What was that saying about age and wisdom?  Or was it youth and folly?  Personally, I think it was the "Charlie Horses."

Rider Confession #2: 
Hans Christian Anderson's 
"The Princess and the Pea" 
is the story of my life.

Literally and figuratively, I am not a princess.  But when it comes to the whole pea part of the story, well...  

...Let's just say that I get blisters by merely looking at a new pair of shoes and if I wear anything other than leather gloves, the skin rubs off my fingers.  As a young rider, I suffered from perpetual raw patches on my inner calves, because I rode in paddock boots with jodphurs.  The stirrup leathers grabbed and twisted the skin off my calves every time that I rode.  Every time.  The pain of warm bath water hitting open skin is unforgettable, but just in case the sensation escaped my memory, I got to relive it a little bit with my new high boots earlier this spring (Discount-box boots vs. FedEx-box boots).

When I purchase clothes, comfort is my number one priority.  I am often discouraged to find irritating materials incorporated in riding clothing, like the elastic band around the ankle in riding pants.  It feels like my skin under the band is burning.  I tried riding Harley bareback in shorts one time.  Every surface of skin that was in contact with his hair grew large, red hives.  I had hives on top of hives.  It was scary and disheartening.  I was trying to be carefree on a hot summer day only to find myself rushing home to take Benadryl.  My mom would tell you that I spent the beginning of my riding career with my eyes half swollen shut and snot running from my nose.  When I was on stable duty, I used to wear a surgical mask when I cleaned stalls to avoid an allergy rush before my riding lesson.  My early dressage trainer and her husband knew that "this kid is for real" when I showed up to the barn with a fresh package of masks and antihistamines. 

As for the leather gloves, I used to wrap my fingers in baseball tape before I discovered the merits of purchasing more expensive riding gloves.  That also reflects the amount of contact that I used to have in my hands.  Learning to sit the trot was another ordeal altogether, complicated by never really riding in a saddle that fit my petite frame.  Even if the saddle has recessed stirrup bars, the buckle from the stirrup leathers hurt my inner thigh, which leads me to my next confession.

 Rider Confession #3: 
I do webbers.

Clean and comfy.  No extra holes to punch or leathers to trim.

I ride with leather webbers instead of stirrup leathers on my dressage saddle.  They are Bates brand, black leather with a nylon core that is not supposed to stretch.  I purchased nifty little sleeves to cover the metal "T" that sets the webber to a comfortable length.  Now I do not have to feel the bulk of the leathers, the pinch of the "T", or the immovable buckle under my thigh.  I also think that they look quite sharp.

Harley gets to be comfy, too, with his contoured girth.

It's the little things that count.
No more pinching leathers and even less between me and my horse.  Bliss.

Final Confession:
I have endured my share of pain for the sake of my passion, but, like all horse girls, the thought of not riding never crossed my mind. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Riding Reflection: Rediscovering Impulsion

I was excited to ride after my lesson on Thursday, so that I could transfer our work from the ground to the saddle.  The temperature was in the low eighties, which is lovely right now, and Harley looked happy as we tacked up.  We entered the ring and I assessed Harley's energy level.  He was relaxed, his neck was low, and he was moseying at the walk.  Now, I really do not mind a mosey at the beginning of a ride or down the trail, but when I touched him with my legs, he did not change his pace.  I gave a stronger squeeze and received the same lack of response.

Have I started using my legs too much to keep him going?  

My historically sharp horse was feeling a little dull.  It is strange how these things can sneak up on you.  I know that maintaining the pace is the horse's responsibility, but somewhere along the way I had started picking up the slack and not holding him accountable for his end of the partnership.  I believe that this is a side effect of riding your own horse.  I love my horse so it is easy to let things slide, whereas if I had been on a lesson horse, I would be much less tolerant of dragging toes. Let's also not forget that Harley used to be the kind of horse to fly off his feet, so I was glad that he was not overreactive, but now I am making excuses (for the love of a horse).

In Thursday's lesson, it had taken some assertive taps to get him moving.  If I wanted to direct him with my energy, I would need him to provide some too, so I decided to reaffirm his responsibility to keep the pace.

As we walked, I gave a little nudge with my legs.

No response.

I tapped behind my leg with the whip.

Still no response.

I tapped a little more intensely.

He raised his head.  "Did you say something?"

I tapped again, raising the intensity, the quickness of the tap.  I kept my position neutral and my legs passive.  I did not want to confuse the message by gripping or falling forward, weighting his forehand.

He continued to tighten and raise his head taking short, hurried strides until finally he reached forward and took a nice walk stride.

"Good Boy!"  The tapping immediately stopped.  I felt the saddle lift up as he stepped under my weight.

As soon as he heard "Good Boy" he went back to moseying.  I could imagine him thinking, "Glad that's over with."  Unfortunately for Harley, I was not going to accept just two nice steps; I wanted him to maintain his energy as long as we were riding.  I was not doing this to be a drill sergeant.  When he took those nice steps, he lifted the front of the saddle.  Walking with energy is ultimately healthier for his body and much more pleasant than being squeezed by his rider's legs.

With kindness and understanding, I persisted.

I love you, Harley, and that is why I must hold you responsible for your energy level. 

I do not want to you to slowly break down your body, by dragging yourself around and I do not want to compromise our communication and comfort by using my legs to keep you going.

I always started with a gentle aid and quickly escalated the taps from the whip until he was marching on his own.  Since he does have a very nice engine, it did not take him long to relearn his responsibility, but we did have to repeat the process in trot and canter.  It was very important that I kept tapping when he tightened his neck.  My horse holds a lot of emotion in his neck, so if I released the pressure when his neck was tight, he would think that getting emotional and dropping his back was an effective solution.  This is something that has taken me a long time to learn.  It is easy to back off when a horse tightens and think "Oh, he doesn't like that", but if your request is fair and your horse is capable, it would be a mistake to end your directive just because your horse's initial response is "I'd rather not".  Of course, this does not apply to unfair requests that overface the horse or assume previous knowledge.

The best part about Harley accepting responsibility for his energy level was the lovely impulsion he developed.  His neck was long and stretching to the contact with a soft arch.  He was less likely to fall on his forehand and if he did, he regained his balance quickly.

I could steer with my belly button, like we did on the ground, and Harley maintained a joyous lightness to his body.  

I adjusted my own energy to ask for transitions.  I enjoyed being able to ride with relaxed, draped legs.  I could use my legs to ask for a little more engagement or provide an outside boundary around a turn, and then return to following my horse.  There is no question that it is easier for the horse to move when the rider is not gripping, which is why gripping and squeezing usually leads to more of the same.  However, falling into that pattern does seem to be a strong temptation in riding, at least for me.

We ended the ride with some canter-trot transitions.  This exercise is hands-down the most difficult thing for my horse.  Over the years, he had made tremendous improvement, but we continue to chip away at this all-important test of balance, strength, and suppleness.  To my delight, I found that the impulsion which he was now providing was allowing him to transition down to trot with greatly improved balance.  Often the transition is so rough that I am tipped forward, making it impossible for me to support him in the new gait and contributing to his loss of balance.  To help him, I was hypervigilant of my knees and lower back.  I literally held my knees off the saddle and thought about keeping my belly button back towards my spine.  I steadied by hands just above his withers, so that my end of the contact would not float around during the transition.  Along with his renewed impulsion, my stable position really helped him keep his balance from canter to trot with a long neck.  The right lead was just about perfect and his left lead reached a personal best.   There was no scrambling in trot and he was able to stretch into the contact in the canter.  He was very happy to stretch down in trot after this challenging work, and I was happy to have a happy, responsible horse.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Appreciation For A Good Teacher and A Lesson: June 16, 2011

My teacher came out to the farm on Thursday.  I was so happy to see her, since she has not been here since the end of April.  She owns a farm in Pennsylvania, but makes trips to New Jersey about once a month to train and give lessons.  I started riding with her about three years ago.

My first lesson with her was almost entirely on the posting trot.  After more than two decades in the saddle, I never would have dreamed that I would need a lesson on rising to the trot, let alone enjoy one.  She adjusted my seat in the saddle and drew my legs forward by tugging my knees towards my horse's shoulders.  Then, she had me rotating my torso to the outside of the circle and "collapsing" at the waist while my horse walked.

I found it nearly impossible to collapse at first; my lower back was so hollow from years of instructions to "sit up".  

When we got to trot there was even more rotating and "collapsing" at the waist.  I felt like my back was curved in a "C", but I was actually sitting straight, with a soft lower back, perhaps, for the first time in my life.  It was very challenging to steer my horse, while I was looking to the outside of the circle, but, before long, he was traveling on the circle all by himself.  The rotated-out position places the rider's legs in the correct places to guide the horse onto a circle.  This position also makes it easier for the horse to move, because the rider cannot collapse to the inside.  She told me that the saddle was not a trampoline and that I should post forward with barely any height to my rise.  I was supposed to rise just above the pommel and then my horse would move forward to catch me as I returned to the saddle.  She told me to open my thighs as I rose from the saddle.  Try it.  It is very difficult if you have learned to post onto your knees.  I caught myself laughing at my attempts to go against my hard-wiring.  I did not know that I was pinching my horse until I tried not to!  There was supposed to be almost no rise to my rising trot.  When I got it right, I found that posting involved my thighs rolling against the saddle, rather than leaving the saddle altogether.  And here was the real kicker.  My tight, sensitive horse was taking large, flowing strides.  His neck was long and he was reaching to the bit even though I was not actively trying to put him there.  Best of all, Harley was relaxed!  I was floored.  I just could not argue with my horse's response to the whole thing.

My teacher's philosophy is to work with the horse, not on the horse.

If you are in this sport long enough, this art-form, if you really love riding and horses, you must get used to feeling humble.  Once again, I found myself realizing that I would have to relearn a great many things.  This relearning would require focus and concentration as well as retraining my muscles and reprogramming my muscle memory.  And let's not forget the emotional turmoil that accompanies relearning.  I had to accept that I did not know as much as I thought I did, despite my years of lessons and riding lots of different horses.  My ego quickly mended though, because my body felt so much more comfortable as muscles which I had learned to hold very tightly, finally released.  This release usually left me with a ridiculous grin on my face as I tooled around the circle on Harley, round and relaxed.  I thought back over the years.

When was the last time that I smiled during a riding lesson?  

Even though I loved riding, smiling did not seem to come naturally during dressage instruction.  The significance of this change in my experience was not lost on me.

Three years later, I am still excited and eager to see what my teacher has in store for us at our next lesson.  She usually asks me what I would like to do.  This time I was torn between riding and ground work, so she told me to bring out the groundwork halter and my saddle.  The groundwork halter is Harley's everyday halter with a fuzzy over the nose and a long, braided line crossed over the noseband.  The line is threaded through the noseband rings of the halter like reins.  I was supposed to walk next to Harley, holding both "reins" with bent elbows and released shoulders so that he could reach for contact with the halter.  Finding a muscular release in my shoulders has been one of the most difficult changes in my riding.  I am not always where I should be, so this is something that I try to keep in the front of my thinking.  As I walked next to Harley, my teacher helped us by asking him for more impulsion with the dressage whip (the "wand").  Harley stepped forward into the reins and lengthened his neck.  She showed me how to ask him to release his shoulders by asking him to step sideways, shifting his weight between both shoulders.  This shifting between his shoulders allowed him to discover how to keep his shoulders light.  Shoulders are not for supporting your weight, Harley!  Let your posture support you as you carry yourself from behind.

I was surprised by how much impulsion was needed to allow him to lift his shoulders.  If we did not have enough impulsion, he dropped onto his forehand and became difficult to direct onto a circle or straight line.  Once he had enough impulsion and was reaching into both reins evenly, we could go anywhere!  All I had to do was turn my bellybutton in the direction that I wanted to go and Harley would follow.  This exercise really hit home, when we tried the leg yield.  Harley knows how to leg yield quite easily, so I touched him with my hand to nudge him over.  My teacher stopped me.  She told me not to touch him, to just use my energy.  I politely asked, "Why?  He understands what I am asking."

She told me that she wanted me to use my energy and my intent to direct him.  

If we had enough impulsion and he was truly with me, than I should not need to touch him to move over.  This was yet another lesson asking me to change my habits.

So I gave it a try.  I asked Harley to walk on and started walking towards his shoulder, as if I wanted a leg yield.  Harley just kept walking straight ahead.  I literally walked into his shoulder and then I complained a little to my teacher,  "I do not know how to do this."  She explained that I needed even more impulsion, so that he was light on his feet and saw me as his dance partner, not just a person walking with him.  I tapped him with the whip.  He went to the reins a little more, but the outside was still floppy.  I tapped him a couple more times, on top of his rump and next to his shoulder.  Suddenly, he awakened.  His neck lengthened yet again as his energy became palpable.  I marched next to him with a soft lower back and flexed joints, like when we lunge.  I turned my belly button and we circled.  I pointed my belly button straight ahead and we went straight.  I kept my energy up and turned my belly button to his shoulder, but not completely.  I kept some angle in my body and stepped across like I was leg yielding.  Harley stepped over.  My teacher reminded me to keep a feel on the outside rein by bouncing my elbow back.  I was holding the outside rein just behind his wither and this kept Harley's neck straight.  With this support he was able to maintain his balance as he stepped sideways and I was not touching him!

My teacher cheered me on as I found the connection more.  I tapped Harley's rump again and he sprung into a collected trot.  At the trot, we circled, we went straight.  I jogged beside him.  We turned and leg yielded in trot, using my belly button and my energy.  We came around the turn and my teacher directed my attention to my inside rein.  It was softly draped.  I gave it forward an inch and Harley's balance did not change.  We trotted into another turn and my inside rein remained slack.  I could feel all the balance in the outside rein.

The rein felt like the draw string on a satchel of pearls.  Harley's body was a package held together by that little string and my energy. 

I lowered my energy and we transitioned to walk.  I halted and my horse halted next to me, stretching his neck as I allowed the reins to slide through my fingers.

"With that energy, he would follow you anywhere," my teacher exclaimed with a smile of approval.  Then she asked me if I felt that I would be able to transfer some of this work into the saddle.  Now I smiled, because during the course of the lesson I had forgotten that I was not riding.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Riding Reflection: Lateral Work in Posting Trot

I had this really interesting ride yesterday.  It was wonderful partly because the temperature was below 80 degrees Fahrenheit and my horse felt like his energetic self again.  I love summer, but I think the sudden heat wave was melting us.  The other reason that it was wonderful, was because we worked on lateral movements.

I love lateral movements for so many reasons:
  • improving suppleness, forwardness, and self-carriage
  • refining communication
  • stretching between exercises

Also, nothing feels quite as dressage-y as a few steps sideways.

After our warm up, Harley was trotting along with a nice rhythm.  I was rising to the trot.  I wanted to feel more fluidity in his strides, so I brought him down the quarter line and nudged him over to the track.  The trick to lateral motion while rising to the trot is to post on the "wrong diagonal".    More specifically, post with the front leg that is on the same side as the hind leg with which you would like to communicate.  So if I want to leg yield to the left, I post with the front right leg.  Each time that I sit, I apply my right leg and I release the aid as I rise.  Repeat for as many steps as you would like to travel in leg yield.  Of course your horse must be balanced between your reins and legs with sufficient forward energy, but the posting trick really helps with the timing of the aid.  I have taught several riders this trick with great success.  I call it a trick, because lateral work is typically conducted in sitting trot, but giving your horse a chance to practice the movement without your full weight in the saddle can be very beneficial.  It is also interesting to feel how your horse responds to your weight and legs when you cannot push your seat around in the saddle.  I have found this practice quite enlightening, especially when I return to sitting trot.

After a few passes at leg yield, Harley's trot is flowing much better.  He heads for the long side and I carry the bend from the corner into shoulder-in.  I am still posting on the inside diagonal, as I ask him to move down the long side with a gentle bend.  As he works to shift his weight back, I feel him tighten the base of his neck, so I take the inside rein to the side, asking him to let his neck go.  We have been working on this "letting go" on circles and straight lines, so asking him to keep the base of his neck soft is a familiar cue.  He releases his neck and reaches for the bit.  This lovely reach continues as we straighten and ride forward.  I gently steady my hands just above the withers, and Harley's neck arches like a bow with his nose ahead of the vertical.

Haunches-in or travers is next on the list.  Again, I begin from the corner and ride a small circle.  Upon returning to the track, I keep the bend from the circle and ask him to carry his hindquarters just to the inside.  At first he thinks that I want to canter, so I say "trot" and keep my legs in the haunches-in position.  His hesitation is momentary, as he assumes the haunches-in and trots forward.  This movement is considerably more challenging than shoulder-in.  He tightens his neck, even though he obediently steps under his weight with the outside hind.  Again, I coax him to release his neck and straighten between the reins.  He shows his trust by letting go a little, dropping his head, and relaxing his shoulders.  I immediately feel his hind legs swing more easily.  This exercise requires a lot of tact.  If I push too much, my muscle tension spoils his ability to move.  If I drop the supports, his energy leaks out inefficiently, usually resulting in more neck tension and heavy shoulders.  The beautiful thing about this movement is that your horse does not have to perform perfectly to reap the benefits of the exercise.  With each attempt, Harley becomes more supple, more forward, and lifts his shoulders towards a light contact. I encourage him to carry his improved forwardness into the next movement, and he is able to give me a couple really nice tries, especially in left bend.  The right bend is noticeably more difficult for him, so I sit the trot a little to get a direct line of communication between his haunches and my seat.  When he blows through his nose and offers a lengthening from haunches-in right, I know that the exercise has served its purpose.

We finish our ride with a very simple test.  Not a competition test, but a dressage test nonetheless.  We ride around in trot and I keep my hands just about at his withers.  I give little nudges with my legs, to see if he is in front of my leg.  He keeps his rhythm and the softness in his body, but powers on from behind.  Without moving my reins, I feel how much he can lift in front, just from those little nudges.  His trot is floaty and wonderful.  I imagine what he must look like, as we soar around the ring.  I love this part, because he feels so easy to ride.  And Harley is not easy.  I think that he is most challenging horse that I have ever ridden.  Not challenging in the confrontational sense, although he can get angry and has gotten angry with me more than once in our time together, but in the search for balance.  Lasting balance.  The kind that lets him carry me around effortlessly and trot to the gate at dinner time, with a soft lift in his body even when boots and saddles are no where to be found.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Falls in Love with Dressage

I did not know the existence of dressage as an attainable equestrian discipline until high school.  I had been riding for a while, mostly over fences, and I had certainly been taught some aspects of bending and preparing the horse for a turn or a transition, but I still pretty much thought of dressage as something that happens at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria.  My tattered Encyclopedia of the Horse had a section on dressage, which I had read and reread, but the pictures always seemed to be from some far off place, outside the view of regular riders like me.  Until ninth grade, my only up-close and personal experiences with dressage had been the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament and one of my instructors.  This instructor was a college student pursuing a degree in equine studies.  One time, she got on one of our lesson horses to demonstrate "dressage".  This type of riding seemed to include our typically sweet-faced lesson horse pursing his facial muscles and humping up his body.  He started frothing at the mouth and his eye looked a little wild.  I cannot remember exactly what she was doing, only the way our lovely horse was reacting and the obvious relief on his face when she dismounted.  I also vividly remember her explaining to my friend's mother that she had recently gone to a competition and the judge told her that she was using her hands too much.  When she described this, she was holding her hands in fists and moving them left and right in the air.  As a side note, I think that I learned close to nothing from that instructor while I paid her for lessons, and it was shortly after this demonstration that I found my new barn.

Within weeks of my dwindling riding experiences, my neighbor approached me about visiting a local farm with her and her daughter.  Her daughter, who was probably around seven or eight years old, had spent numerous summers listening to me talk about horses and was in the stages of begging her parents for riding lessons.  The horse bug is contagious!  Fortunately for the little girl, my neighbor also had a love for horses and had even ridden on occasion, so it did not take much arm-twisting to convince her to find a riding stable for her daughter.  My neighbor wanted to know if I would come along to check the place out with her.  Honestly, she probably just wanted some company and knew that her little girl would be happy to have her older horse-nut friend in tow.  I was not one to say "No" to anything that included horses or farms and since my neighbor also happened to be one of my favorite people in the world, I eagerly agreed.

When we arrived at the farm, I scanned it with the cool overconfidence of a young teen.  The farm was small with about ten acres, but the owners had made the most of their property.  A little jump course adorned the front field, two turnout paddocks had been built wrapping around the sides and back of the property, and modular stalls stood at the base of the dirt driveway.  The garage was doubling as a feed and tack room and had certainly not seen the likes of a car in quite some time.  I was taken by the organization of the garage.  Every hook and space had a job and the bridles lining the wall were neat and sparkling.  The owner was very polite and friendly, as he brought out the pony for my neighbor's daughter and explained that his wife was the riding instructor.  She was just finishing riding her horse, so we were going to walk to the riding ring to meet her and begin the lesson.  Looking around, I wondered where on Earth they were hiding a riding ring.  Driving up, I had not seen anyone riding, let alone an arena.

We left the garage and started our walk behind the house.  The backyard was a hill, steep enough to prevent our view over the horizon.  As we marched through the trees and up the hill, a riding ring became visible below.  The ring was cut into the hill, and the husband explained that they had built the ring twice, the second time to improve leveling and drainage.  This left an interesting "natural" step between the fence and the immaculate riding surface.  Tall trees and shrubs lined the far side of the ring, giving it a "Secret Garden" appeal.

I was about to comment on how neat their ring was, when I saw the rider.  She rode a huge chestnut mare, with waves in her red tail and a coat that shimmered in the sunlight.  The rider sat seemingly motionless as her horse trotted with remarkable energy all around the ring.  Every time I blinked they were doing something different.  First a small circle, then a change of direction, next they were gliding across the ring sideways.  The mare looked of solid muscle and her neck was held in a glorious arch, her mane springing along on top of her crest as she trotted.  I was speechless.  Literally dumbfounded.  At this point the instructor had noticed her onlookers and her new riding student, and then she saw me.  I can only imagine that I must have been quite the spectacle, with my gaping mouth and saucer eyes.  It is quite possible that I was drooling, because I cannot remember anything except that mare and her rider surrounded by the crystal fog of a dream.  No one else was there.

I am sure that the instructor saw some of herself in me and understood what to do next.  She moved her horse into canter and headed for the diagonal.  Her mare leaped into the air changing leads multiple times as they cantered toward me.  In the next moment, they were gliding sideways again, this time in canter.  I did not know that horses could do that!  If the rider and her horse were not so perfectly in sync I might have thought that the mare could fall as she skipped sideways across the ring.  For the grand finale, the woman brought her horse back to trot and they stormed up the diagonal.  The mare demonstrated incredible reach and power as she launched herself into the air with each diagonal set of legs.  Through all of this, the woman's seat never left the saddle and any cues that she was giving to her horse, I could not see.  They halted in front of me and the mare's tail swung forward from the momentum.  The woman reached down and stroked the arched neck with fondness.  "This is Garbo", she said.

At last my senses returned to me and so I replied,
"Can I sign up for a lesson?"

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Harleys and Dirtbikes Do Not Mix

I really wanted to ride my horse yesterday.  The thermometer read 98 degrees Fahrenheit, so we certainly could not "work", but we could still enjoy each other's company.  Sometimes, I just need to be in the saddle.

As I walked past the riding ring, the sand was glowing white from the intense sun.  The ring was a desert that I was not interested in crossing, and when I found my horse resting in the shade of the shed and trees, I decided that it would be foolish of me to make him walk in the sun, when he had enough sense to stay out of it on his own.

The forest was calling us, so we headed for the wooded trail.  We stopped to open a gate, before leaving the farm.  I love that my horse can work gates.  Long before I had access to trails, I used to practice opening the gate to the arena from horseback.  Horses seem to get a feeling for when something is practical rather that just practice.  Working gates teaches patience and obedience.  Harley knows his job around a gate.  I can reposition him with very tiny nudges and he is usually pretty good about standing as I lean over to slide the latch or raise the rope.  He is obliged to push the gate open with his nose. 

We see our first group of deer almost as soon as we pass through the gate.  They are always hanging around, so Harley barely flicks an ear as they make a half-hearted dash away from us.  Our pace is very leisurely as we leave the woods and walk onto the sandy trail which parallels the power lines.  Harley kicks up some sand as he walks, and the sediments create a rustling in the foliage neighboring our path.  Birds fly up from the sand, ending their dust baths prematurely.  I notice several indentations in the trail.  A few weeks ago, the indentations were puddles teaming with tadpoles, but now they are dry sockets of cracked earth.  I wonder if any of the tadpoles completed their metamorphosis before the sun baked their home.

As we continue, I think how nice it is to have a horse that will just walk, if that is all I want.  My reins are loose, and Harley's head and neck telescope from side-to-side, like he is sending out radar and receiving signals.  We do not usually go out alone, so I get the impression that he being extra vigilant.  Another group of deer rise from their resting place and hop threw the woods.  This time we cannot see them clearly through the brush, so Harley stops and targets them with his ears.

"Just deer, Boy.  Come on."

He moves off and I hear the rustling of the sand against the foliage again.  We reenter the woods on the right side of the trail.  The air beneath the trees is much cooler, so Harley marches with more energy.  We are surrounded by ferns, scrub oak and pine.  I notice deep grooves in the trail ahead.  Harley walks in the space between the four-wheeler tread marks and I silently despair.  I wish we had these woods to ourselves.

After a short distance, the black flies find us, so we turn around and return to the sandy trail.  This time we take the turn to the left, and, for whatever reason, the flies are not as noticeable.  The trail is clear and level enough to trot.  Harley is happy to move up a gear, so we explore an intersecting trail for a short distance, turn around and canter back.  My sense of adventure awakens, so we walk deeper into the woods.  No houses or fences are visible from our vantage point.  We could have been in a book or movie, set in a time period when horses were the main source of transportation.  I think to myself that we should do this more often, when I hear a distant rumble.

I am not sure the source of the sound, but I remember the tire tracks dug into the previous trail.  Harley turns on his haunches, in what now seems to be a very narrow passage.

"Let's head home.  Maybe we have had enough adventure."

My heart sinks when I realize that the rumble is getting louder and now includes a rattling whine.  I urge Harley to walk faster, until the rumble is a roar so unsettling that I turn him perpendicular to the path and kick him off the trail.  He steps up the small bank and we stand in the trees.  I cannot tell where the sound is coming from until I see a cloud of dust and exhaust speeding up the intersecting trail we had been trotting along only minutes earlier.  The dust cloud is moving too quickly for a four-wheeler and the whine of the gear shifts is too high pitched.  I try to send calm down my legs, as I tell Harley that we are safe off the trail.   To my relief, the dirt bike turns away from us and tears down the path in the direction of the power lines.

My immediate instinct is that we need to get out of the woods.  Harley backs onto the trail, but I stop him, because the bike has turned our trail into a dark tunnel with a haze of sand and fumes so thick that I cannot see down the path.  What if the biker comes back the same way?  We will be invisible and if he is traveling as fast as he was before, there will not be time to get out of the way.  I feel fear creeping in, but I choke it back.

"Come on, Harley".

He starts to prance, sensing my urgency, but I coax him to walk.  I want him as quiet as possible, so that I can hear and so that I can steer him off the trail at a moment's notice.  The haze clears and so we walk faster.  Then, there is the sound again.  It is so difficult to tell where the sound is coming from.  Is a second biker behind us?

We march on until the resonating whine returns and I kick him back off the trail.  I am suddenly taken by how thick the woods are.  I do most of my trail riding in the fall and winter, when the foliage is dwindling or gone, so you can see for quite a distance, but now I feel almost trapped.  If my horse darts forward there is little space between the trees to guide him, without knocking a knee or risking a branch in the face.  Of course, either of these is preferred to meeting a motor bike head on.  It is amazing how quickly one can weigh the options, when danger approaches.

Fortunately, it is the same bike returning down the power lines, but he passes our trail and continues straight ahead, away from our home and away from us.  I see our chance, so we back up again and hurry to the clearing.  Once in the sunlight, I breathe a sigh of relief.  At least we are visible now, and the sandy path is much wider than the wooded trail.  Harley walks on a loose rein.  With both reins together, I rest my hand down on his withers, like a western rider resting on the horn of the saddle.  I hear him blow through his nose and the familiar rustle of the sand in the foliage returns.  A toad casually hops away from Harley's feet.  The foreboding rumble is gone.

When we make it back to the farm, I again find myself appreciating my horse.  He is sensitive and responsive, but also sensible.  Despite the apprehension that he must have been feeling from me, he hopped on and off the trail at my request, and stood motionless in the trees, with his ears rotated back to me, while we waited for the monster.  He felt so steady, that I do not think that he would have jumped forward, even if the bike had passed behind us.  I patted his neck, more to reassure myself than him.

"I am lucky to have you, Boy."

Whispers in the leaves greeted us as we marched towards the gate.


Two deer were curled up on the ground, less than ten feet away.  I did not see the shining, black eyes and raised ears until we were right next to them.  Harley ignored their hissing.  His ears were on the gate.  But the deer knew that I had seen them, and I did not smell like a fellow herbivore.  The deer leaped from their resting place, and for a moment, Harley felt their excitement.  He bounded into the trot, as I slid up the reins and stroked his neck.

"Just deer, Boy.  It's okay."

Monday, June 6, 2011

Riding Reflection: Trot Poles Are For Jumping?

We had a short workout yesterday.  I decided to give the "trot poles mixed with canter" exercise a try under saddle.  We practiced the lungeing exercise on Saturday and Harley was so relaxed.  He handled all the trot and canter transitions like a pro and adjusted to the trot pole distance very quickly.  He is so smart.

After a walk/trot warm up, we headed for the poles going to the right.  He tightened as he went over them the first time.  I clucked to him and circled for a return approach.  He started to speed up too much.  I went to slow him down, but then I stopped myself.  He was trying to get his energy up so that he could match the pole distance.  I needed to just let him be and allow the poles to regulate his pace.  The second attempt was better and by the third time he was able to reach over the poles and stretch into the bridle at the same time.  This was great.  I have often avoided trot poles, because he would tighten over them, reinforcing the hollowing muscle groups instead of the carrying ones.  I spend too much time and energy trying to dissolve those muscles to use an exercise that strengthens them, but thankfully, today it was working.

On a circle to the left, he repeated the tightening business as he stepped over the poles in trot.  I let him be for several circuits, but when his posture did not improve I decided to help.  I put my legs on before the poles and gave small, supportive nudges in rhythm with his steps as he moved over the poles.  At last his head and neck lowered and he relaxed.  I repeated this the next time around and then tried it without my legs.  He immediately hollowed.  Oh well, he needs more support from me in this direction; I was happy to oblige.

Once we had a nice rhythm going, I added the canter after the poles.  Harley really needs to open up his stride in order to relax and he does not collect very well unless he has had a chance to warm up with some big canters, so this exercise was going a bit against his typical routine.  As we approached the poles, I felt him put more power into his stride.  Like earlier in the ride, I resisted slowing him with my hands, because I wanted the poles to teach him.

I asked him to trot.

He trotted.

And then he leaped over the poles! 


It was a nice smooth jump, and my body stayed with him even as my brain was like "Harley?".  I kept him in the canter for three-quarters of the circle, brought him back to trot, and he repeated the leap of faith over the poles.  Now, I just had to laugh.  Someone was having fun.

After he jumped them for the third time, and he missed his mark, knocking them askew, I decided that we were done with trot poles for the day.  Interestingly enough, our lack of success in completing the exercise did not rob him of the benefits.  A couple nice jumps had set his canter into a lovely tempo with delightful engagement and he carried this into the trot as we practiced transitions and changes of direction.  I threw in a little counter canter to avoid the disheveled trot poles and he blew threw his nose as he stretched secluded muscles behind the saddle.  He wanted to drop back to trot a couple times, but I encouraged him with my position and my voice.  I felt him dig in, as he rocked his hindquarters underneath himself and maintained gait.  I can feel his strength and stamina in canter improving with each ride, but I must coach him to pass his comfort zone and challenge his muscles.  At last, we trotted and I let him stretch.  There was not a tight muscle left in his body and I felt the same way.

I guess it might be best to leave the "trot poles mixed with canter" exercise for lunge work, since he seemed to benefit more in that venue.  And to be honest, I do not really enjoy circling over poles.  I got my horse's message though.  The jumping saddle has been dusted off and is home for a safety check.  Look out world, Harley is a jumping horse!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Long Lining: Techniques and the Canter

Memorial Day was a hot one, here in New Jersey.  Ninety-three degrees!  I decided that it was too hot to ride, so I took down the surcingle and brought out my long lines.  Why make the horse work hard when I can run myself ragged?  After all, horse people put the horse first. 

Exercise horse.  Check.
Exercise human.  Check.
Schedule medical appointment to have head examined for doing this on the hottest day of the year.  Nah.

All horse-related activities are inherently dangerous, as respectable horse people know, but I just want to be explicit in saying that long lining is not something to try without experienced help.  A year ago, I asked my teacher to give me a long lining lesson with Harley and we had a great experience.  She introduced him to the lines and demonstrated her technique before I got "behind the wheel".  We now have this tool in our repertoire, but I am certainly not an expert and I am definitely still learning the ropes, so to speak.  
Please be safe with your horse!

I long line Harley in a surcingle and his bridle.  I have flat cotton long lines with rolled black nylon sections that clip onto his bridle and pass through the middle rings on the surcingle.  For safety purposes, I leave the lines disconnected and I wear gloves.  I also roll the bridle reins and secure them with the throatlatch to prevent them from flipping over his head.  I carry a lunge whip or a driving whip.  I prefer the driving whip because I can use it like a super long dressage whip and it doesn't have a pesky lash to get tangled in the lines.  Also, I am terrible at cracking the whip, so the lunge whip is not much use to me.  There is seriously enough rope to manage without a whip lash to untwist!

Line management is something that I must relearn each time that we practice long lining.  I have tried holding folded line in each hand, but this makes it difficult to feel down the line and impossible, at least for me, to adjust the line length.  The hand that also has to hold the whip becomes especially clumsy.  Thank goodness Harley does not overreact to the whip and is patient enough to stand and wait while I organize my lines for the umpteenth time.

After some careful trial and error, I think that I have come up with a line technique that works for me.  I fold the excess lines to a workable length together (but disconnected) and hold them in my left hand.  I do not wrap the line around my arm or hand, which is a big safety no-no.  I carry the whip in my right hand.  My left hand's responsibility is to hold all the line and feel my horse at the end.  My right hand's responsibility is to direct the whip and adjust the line length for my left hand.  I will carry the right line in my right hand with the whip when changing direction or straightening my horse, but when we are moving along I can stay connected to him solely with my left hand.  I am right handed, so I find organizing the lines and directing the whip much easier with my right hand.  I tried switching the lines and the whip when we changed direction, but this was very awkward and unsuccessful at best.  I gave it a couple tries, because the rider in me wants to strive for ambidexterity, but it just was not practical, especially for figure-eights.  So the main downside to my technique is that when traveling right, I have the whip in my right hand and I have to reach across my left arm to touch his hindquarters.  The horse might be inclined to stop with the whip in the handler's "front" hand, but Harley has accepted it without any upset.  My clumsy readjustment of the lines and whip in an already tenuous directional change was far more aggravating to our practice.  In fact, he would toss his head up and look back at me like "would you quit messing around".  I was creating a lot of static, while he was trying his best to listen.

Memorial Day was the first time we had long lined in several months, so I spent a lot of time in the walk.  When I felt organized and he understood the plan, I asked him to trot.  At first he popped up in front, pushing off his front end to move into trot, but once he got moving he stretched into the lines and gave me some beautiful collected trot.  What I really like about long lining, is that you can offer your horse information about balance and straightness, but unlike side reins, you can also offer him more rein to stretch.  Long lines are like "living side reins" that give and respond just like a rider in the saddle, but without the number of variables that accompany carrying a person.  Having me walking or jogging slowly on the ground, encourages Harley to slow down and engage.  I can touch his hindquarters with the whip to inspire him to step more under and the outside line draping behind his body helps him think about using the posterior region of his body as he moves.  My teacher was the one to point this out.  The outside line actually creates body awareness, something that is difficult to duplicate with a single lunge line or even in the saddle.

My original goal for long lining was to help Harley balance in the canter.  Also, if I ever decide to pursue an Advanced Instructor certification from NARHA, I must be able to demonstrate long lining.  Up until this point, I had never ventured to canter him on the lines, but today felt really good.  I decided to go for it.  We only had to canter for a couple steps and I would consider that a success.  From the trot on a nice circle, I gave him the verbal cue and hopped myself into canter.  I loved the look on his face.  He was concentrating and seemed to understand that this was something very important.  It took him a couple attempts.  He jumped into the canter, but felt the outside rein and immediately returned to trot.  This was a good thing.  He was thinking.  I asked again, and finally he stretched into both reins and cantered on the left lead.  The engagement of his hindquarters and the lift in his back was gorgeous.  I encouraged him on with my voice and my energy.  I marveled in how easily he turned around me.  He was turning himself; the lines were just there to give him boundaries for his balance.  This was what I had always wanted for him.

We repeated the transitions a couple times and then changed direction through the walk.  After a break, he was equally stellar on the right lead.  Being his more balanced lead, he found the collected work easier, so I encouraged him to stretch his frame in canter.  Despite the heat, Harley looked good.  Without a saddle or passenger, he was just a little sweaty under his tack and around his hind legs, an indicator that he was working the correct muscle groups (Yes!).  I, on the other hand, had sweat running down my face, but I was having way too much fun to notice until my horse halted for the final time with a huge "Good Boy"!