As the winter weather drudges on, I think it is easy enough to fall into a riding rut. When the skies are perpetually grey, the horses are on limited turnout because of snow/freezing rain/mud/ice/blizzards/polar vortex temperatures, the horses are fresh because of the aforementioned cold and lack of turnout, we’re cold and often less motivated to work in the unpleasant weather, and we’ve been staring at the same 4 walls of an indoor for entirely too long–that’s a riding rut. It seems to me that even though my plans for the winter start very grandiose and ambitious, there are factors that I can’t control that always seem to get in the way.
Like taking 2-and-a-half weeks of vacation and letting The Mare go that long without jumping. And then coming back and falling off in our first lesson of the semester. And then, The Mare stepping on her heel, pulling open a nice flap on her heel bulb and being on restricted turnout for close to 2 weeks now. (Don’t worry, she’s been sound the whole time, I’m just being overly precautionary…and she’s allowed back in her field starting tomorrow). Mix in a hectic class schedule that has limited me from longer hacks or riding every day during the week, a freshly clipped, fiery, energy-packed Morgan, and it seems to take twice as long to get anything productive done during our rides and I have half the time to do it in. Instead of making progress, or even plateauing, I feel like we are both slowly losing our minds while we freeze our butts off. Full-blown riding rut.
In my lesson today we went to work after a lengthy walk warm-up, The Black Mare’s little legs flying everywhere and her head up in the air. All my normal tricks to start working her down aren’t doing much for me in this cold weather; transitions just amp her up more, lots of changes of direction elicit drifting through her shoulder and head tossing, lateral work frazzles her and she’ll boot, scoot’n’boogie away from my leg. I usually end up trying to keep her flatwork and diverse as possible so she can’t anticipate much, keep her working and making sure I’m being patient with her.
As we’re trotting around the arena at what feels like Mach-10, my coach is rapid-fire rattling off instructions: ‘Her poll needs to be lower, but her nose needs to poke out–I don’t want her nose on her chest. Slow the tempo, no, that’s too fast. Bring your leg back. Bring your shoulders back. Bring your shoulders BACK. Keep your hand low. Go to your sitting trot if you thing you need to use your seat to slow her down. Alternate between posting and sitting, but keep her frame the same’. We went around, serpentine, sitting trot, posting trot, change direction, small circle, smaller circle, canter transition, back to walk, back to trot, back to canter, go jump those barrels, now back to trot, all with a constant stream of suggestions to get The Mare to relax and slow down. About a half an hour in, The Black Mare is still a fire-breathing dragon, running through my hand as she whirls around the arena, as if moving faster will get her back into her warm stall more quickly.
We go back to our work on a serpentine and finally get somewhere with some relaxation and lower self-carriage. ‘You’re really not going to fast. This trot here is lovely’. As soon as she says this, we are getting quicker, I’m scrambling to shorten my reins, oh God now she’s tossing her head, her stride is all short and choppy, I’m trying to work her back down and re-establish some kind of rhythm. We run through this cycle about 10 more times before we take a walk break. I had to clarify something with my coach: each time I had been told the trot was good, a half a second later we were falling apart. What was happening?
I remembered a lesson I’d had last year on one of our extremely talented school horses. My coach had pushed me that lesson and had told me that to achieve that good, working, impressive gaits–trot, canter, whatever–I needed to be riding on the edge. Where the horse is carrying himself, is soft and responsive to your hand and leg, and you almost, almost feel like you don’t have control. It’s hard to describe, but when achieved is some kind of exhilarating. That’s riding on the edge.
Yes, my coach agreed–I was in the same situation again, now with my own horse. I was attempting to ride on the edge, but unsuccessfully. Each time the trot got nice, that was the edge. Where she is carrying herself, feeling like she is nothing in my hand, filling up my leg and working up from behind. That is the edge. A half-second later, when she quickens just the slightest, now we’re over the edge–I lose control, take back too much and now we’re over the edge the other way. A grain of sands’ worth too much holding and her head is flipped up and she’s tight in her rhythm. That perfect distance you see coming out of the corner and ride up to? That is the edge. The holding, waiting, power-chip or superman launch? You’ve gone over the edge. What I need to learn is to maintain riding on the edge. The balance of control vs. softening, and every natural or artificial aid I utilize to keep us on the line of seamless teamwork and elegance, power, coordination and fluidity.
Our lesson continued to improve as The Mare lost some steam, and I think I have found the way out of the riding rut I’ve fallen into. I’m resolved to find my way back to the edge. The place where we feel most connected to our horses. The place where we are our most impressive. The place where we remember why we work with these fickle and often difficult animals. The place where everything falls into place and just feels right.
The edge isn’t an easy place to reach, and it’s a harder place to stay–but if you watch your step and keep your balance, the view is spectacular.