James telling Noah where the “itchy bits” are.

The other day I had the opportunity to ride James, the Thoroughbred gelding my kids are now riding (and one of the sweetest creatures ever put on this earth).  Riding James is a completely different experience than riding my Warmblood mare, Sugar.  Their different personalities means that I have to communicate with them completely differently.

Much like I have to use different communication strategies when dealing with my kids, when it comes down to it, I suppose.  Often easier said than done, if you get my meaning.

I’m not accustomed to riding Thoroughbreds.   James is a very sweet and calm boy, but he’s a bit of a thinker, and he worries a bit.  That shows through when you are on him.  He clearly wants to do his job well and when he gets confused about something he worries, tenses up, balls up behind the bit, gets a bit quick.

I hopped on him the other night and added leg to ask him to move off in a trot.  The same amount of leg on Sug would have elicited a desultory,”Oh, you’d like me to consider trotting?” response. James was off like he was shot out of a cannon.   Note to Self: Tone the leg aids down a bit. 

I started off easy, doing large circles and changes of rein across the diagonal.  I had a couple more moments where I needed to remind myself to use less leg as James let me know that if I just thought about changing direction he’d pick up on it.  Don’t get me wrong, I did not take my leg off completely.  I just concentrated on letting my legs wrap around him and just breathe on his sides. With Sug, you sometimes have to use leg like you’re trying to squeeze the last toothpaste out of the tube. With James, things are a lot more subtle.  I am not a subtle girl, so making the adjustment took a lot of thoughtful effort on my part.

I also noticed that James was a bit wary of really accepting contact.  It’s as if he wants to put himself in what he thinks is a frame, and then he hopes you won’t touch his mouth.  He goes in a mild D-ring snaffle and just had his teeth done, so I’m not convinced it’s a bitting issue.  So now, in addition to the more sympathetic leg aids, I was concentrating on  keeping my hands as steady and inviting as possible, and using my newly sympathetic legs to ask him to move forward into the contact.   I asked for a lot of transitions, changes of rein, spiralling circles and some lateral work like leg yields and shoulder in.  The constant busy-work seemed to calm James’ busy brain by giving him a lot to concentrate on, and after a while he seemed  more comfortable going forward and accepting contact with my hands.  It was almost a feeling of having  a conversation while on a date, and after a while, he liked me well enough to agree to hold my hand for a little while.

During downward transitions James has a tendency to dive forward and root the bit.  I’ve never had a horse do this, and since I did not have any of my books, DVDs, or the Chronicle of the Horse forums to turn to for advice, I had to figure out a solution on my own.  As James had an issue accepting contact, it didn’t seem like a good idea to give him a little “nip” with the reins.  I could guess that doing that would undo all the good work we’d done that day.  So I experimented.  I would give him lots of preparation for a downward transition by bringing my weight back and sinking into my heels and seat.  I’d keep my legs lightly on him at the girth to keep him thinking forward and then I’d close my fingers on the reins.  He still dove, but not quite as bad.

Okay, I thought, do I try that again or do I try something new?  Decided to try something new, and on the next trot to walk transition I did the same initial prep, but instead of closing my fingers on the reins this time I did a little sponging of the reins.  Not the seesawing stuff that sends George Morris into a tizzy, just a barely perceptible ‘squeezy squeezy’ of my fingers.  This produced better results.  So we did it again, and again, and again, until finally we could do a trot to walk or walk to halt without trying to ram our nose into the dirt.

So we’ll keep working on this kind of  stuff as we build up James’ strength and trust.  The horse I started out on was a very sweet but curled up ball of anxiety, and the horse I finished on was full of relaxed snorts and had a long, swingy walk.  I was feeling pretty proud of myself, as I felt that, for a brief moment at least, I’d been able to “speak James.”

Thanks for reading,

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