This past winter was a tough one for riders. The weather was unpredictable, cold, snowy, icy and wet. Despite all those issues, Timmy and I continued to take our weekly lessons as scheduled every Saturday morning at 9AM. We made it through 24 degree days and windy 40 degree days that actually felt colder. I think we missed two lessons all winter. I am thankful to have a covered arena at the barn where I board, so we could train all winter, rain or shine. Without it, we would be struggling now to catch up. As it is, Timmy is fairly fit and ready to accelerate his training for 2014.
Our canter work has been coming along pretty well. The left lead is no longer guesswork. He gives it every time and more artfully now than in the past. I can sustain the canter longer and it’s not as strung out as it used to be. The right lead still plagues us from time to time. It’s the bad side for both of us, but is much better than it used to be. My trainer has been very happy with our progress.
I continue to struggle however, with roundness. My horse loves to keep his head up. It’s hard to get him round and through, but when he DOES get there, it is lovely. It is also temporary and I find myself trying to correct him every 3 or 4 strides. It can be exhausting and frustrating. It also affects the quality of his canter. My trainer tries to find ways to help and often consults with another trainer friend of hers in our area. The result of their collboration has been a HUGE benefit for me. Sometimes when something is explained in a different way, the light bulb comes on.
Such was the case this past weekend. After my warm up, my trainer asked me to stop and put my reins in my left hand. She then took hold of my right hand as indicated in the picture below. This represented the reins. She then began to move her arm back and forth at the elbow and I responded the same way. “This is how it should feel to you”. In truth, it felt a bit heavy, but it made sense that by giving from my elbow, the contact was solid and steady.
We began at the walk and within about 3 minutes, Timmy began to lower his head. Five minutes in, the chewing began. I kept the contact the same and the results were really amazing to me. When we transitioned to the trot keeping that same connection, Timmy kept his frame and continued to chew. As a result of all of this, he was forward and working over his back. He carried me without my having to fiddle with him every so many strides.
The other benefit of this “hold” is that by merely turning my wrist one way or another, I could get a different reaction. Going left and holding the outside rein steady, I could turn my left wrist slightly to the outside and I got flexion to the left. WOW! I couldn’t stop grinning. Timmy was moving beautifully and seemed so satisfied to continue forward unhampered. At this point, we changed direction and worked to the other side. Beginning again at the walk with the same steady hold, we worked to the right. It took about one twenty meter circle and the same thing happened. He came round and started to chew. Transitioning to the trot was seamless and off we went. By this time, my trainer and I were both wide-eyed and grinning. It was one of those AHA moments that you just can’t put a price on.
I will tell you that as all this was going on, we took frequent breaks. Mentally and physically this can be challenging to a horse like Timmy who has gone for so long in the frame HE prefers. He was thinking and listening the whole time. Secretly I know he was grinning too. He felt very comfortable doing this work. Another interesting thing happened. My horse, who previously did not always choose to do his canter depart right when I asked—ONLY WANTED TO CANTER! I would ask him to go forward into a trot and he would do a lovely canter depart. It was all so fun and I felt like we were in perfect harmony. Every so often when this type of moment comes along, all you can do is bask in the afterglow!
As I reflected on the lesson, it made so much sense to me. All the squeezing of the reins we do, the “twinkling” or “vibrating” as we move forward HAVE to be annoying to a horse. Messages get through to them in different ways. While these methods may work for others, they never worked for me. As soon as I kept a constant outside holding rein and moved from my elbows (of course, with them at my side), there was far less NOISE for Timmy to wade through. The steady rein and my inside leg pushing him into that outside rein was the answer. It as so simple and yet so elusive for so long.
I am very happy to have a trainer who looks for ways to communicate better with me and my horse. She doesn’t let her ego get in the way. She talks with other trainers and collaborates, sharing their knowledge and frustrations. This was such a win-win for all. It was a breakthrough lesson for us and I can’t wait to see what our next steps will be.