Before and After

It’s been almost two months now since I started riding Dunnie.

The day I met him, I went out to the barn knowing almost nothing about him; I knew that he was a reining horse and that he had won 3rd place at the International Buckskin Horse Association’s World Show several years ago, and that he was much loved at the barn. I had no idea what to expect, and, having just about zero knowledge of reining, no idea really how to measure him.

When he came out of his stall, I thought he seemed a little small, a little pudgy, and very shaggy with a thick, hay-colored winter coat.

Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.
Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.

But I reserved judgement, trying to learn as  much as possible about him. He had been leased for a while by a woman before me who rode him a couple times a week; she’d had to move away because of her job. He’d been pastured outdoors in the winter, which accounted for the unusually heavy coat in a place where it doesn’t get all that cold.

Of course, once I got on him, I immediately fell in love. He was so easygoing, so willing, that I knew right away for sure that I wanted to lease him.

The first time I groomed him myself, I realized just how much coat he was shedding. In five minutes, I’d have several curry-combfuls of his light-colored winter coat drifting around the ground. But underneath, I could see glimmers of the shiny, golden coat that must have inspired his show name, which I learned through some Googling is “Boomtown Gold.” I began to get excited about cleaning him up, and threw myself into grooming him really well every day that I rode him.

struck gold
Dunnie’s golden coat shining in the sun on his withers.

Slowly, more and more of that undercoat emerged. One day while grazing him, I looked over at his back and saw the sun shining off the spot on his withers where all the winter coat had come off. He was still shaggy around his belly and thighs, but here was a glimpse of what he’d look like once he finished shedding. We’d had an especially good ride that day, I felt I was getting stronger and making progress on learning reining techniques. As I reflected on how lucky I felt to be where I was, doing what I was doing—how lucky I was to have stumbled upon Dunnie—I looked at him and felt like I’d struck gold.

I’ve ridden him every chance I’ve gotten for the past two months, weather and work sometimes making that tricky, but I keep finding a way. Most of the time it’s just us out there, with me doing the best I can to be the leader, taking him through the exercises I’ve learned from my trainer and from reading and watching everything on the Internet related to reining in order to build up his muscle and flexibility and get his mind and body back into competition shape. Simultaneously I’m his student, letting him teach me how to communicate with him so we can do the tricks he already knows how to do and that I’m just discovering for the first time. When we’re out there together alone, we work—the riding I’m doing now is the most focused, most directed, most in-depth riding experience I’ve ever had—but it’s also play. I can feel him responding with interest to every new game I pose, every challenge. “What if we try this?” I ask and he says, “I’m game!” Sometimes we do great and I’m amazed at how easy it is. Other times it’s not perfect, but we gave it a good try and so we move on, saving it for another day.

People at the barn have started commenting on the change in Dunnie. My trainer says she can see him getting more fit; others have commented on how much happier he seems, how much friendlier he is in his stall. Someone mentioned that he’d been allowed to get away with quite a bit prior to my arrival, and that he seems to be responding really well to me. It’s so wonderful to hear these things. There’s probably no greater compliment I can receive than “You are making things better,” and when that specifically includes making someone else happier and healthier, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. He’s making me better, too, making me learn patience and chipping away at my stupid perfectionism.

It’s a trope our society presents frequently in stories: the makeover—whether drastic and overnight, or subtle and gradual—the idea that something or someone new comes into your life and fills an empty space and you become visibly different, the changes on the outside reflecting the changes occurring inside. Sometimes, even when it is gradual, it can be startling, as it was the other day when I tacked up Dunnie and brought him into the indoor arena. I put his reins up on his saddle horn and left him standing there a moment while I dragged a stray jump standard out to the edge of the ring, and when I turned back and saw him, I was amazed. The winter coat is completely gone now, and he’s lost weight and toned up. With his fancy saddle and his ears perked up, he looked like the champion showhorse that he was before, and hopefully will soon be again.

Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.
Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.
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Past the Plateau

This week’s riding has been some of the best of…well, ever.

So far, I’ve been out to ride three days this week (still up in the air about going today, since storms are predicted this afternoon), and on every one of those days, I’ve felt improvement. I haven’t had the opportunity to ride like this since I was a pre-teen in a summer riding camp, and it’s possibly the best thing (riding-wise) that’s ever happened to me.

One of the biggest frustrations I had while riding back in the city was the length of time between lessons. I’d start to feel like I was learning something and then it’d be a week, or two weeks, or several months before I got on a horse again and by that time it was back to square one. There comes a point in learning where you need to just put in hours. First, you learn things. If you can do the thing at all, it feels like an accomplishment. But then you reach a level where it feels like you’ve plateaued. You can still do the thing, but the more you do it, the more you realize you’re not doing it that well, and the desire to get better is kindled. At that point, you just need to spent a lot of consistent time reinforcing and refining the skills you learned when you were at a more basic level.

That plateau level is basically where I’ve been for the three years since I’ve gotten  back into riding. I’m more mature now than I was when I stopped at the age of 21, and in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot more about how to learn. So since I’ve been back on the horse, I’ve been happy, grateful, relieved … and also, fundamentally frustrated, knowing that there was so much more to riding and wanting to go there but never quite being able to get there.

And now, I’m there. One day, this amazingly trained, patient, willing horse was dropped into my lap and now I’m finally, finally able to ride and train at the level I’ve been yearning for. I set goals and then every day I work at them a little more and I improve a little more and then I achieve them.

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What’s next?

Like last week, when I was struggling to get Dunnie into a good canter transition without running into a sloppy trot. I had a breakthrough then with figuring out a better way to ask him for the canter, and I set myself a goal for this week: to be able to canter around the entire ring, getting the flying change in both directions. I thought it might be a stretch for me, given how weak my legs felt at that point. But then yesterday we did it. From a complete standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter in a perfect transition. We cantered around the ring, got the flying lead change in both directions. I even went a little bit further than that, backing him up after we stopped, doing a rollback (which I didn’t even really know how to do, but just felt like he did so thought I’d try it) and then picking up another perfect canter transition in the opposite direction. I felt…real. As in, “I’m really doing this.”

 

Problem Solving

Wednesday when I rode I could not for the life of me get Dunnie to give me a good canter transition. He kept doing that super sloppy speedy trot thing that horses do sometimes and is one of the most frustrating things I know of. I wondered if it was because we were outside for the first time in a long time. I wondered if it was the footing out there. I wondered if he was sore in the shoulders, or even maybe lame. But when I got off him and watched him walk from the end of the lead rope, nothing looked amiss.

Thursday when we rode it started happening again. But occasionally he’d do a little jump like he was trying to get into a canter stride. He wasn’t being ornery, and this time we were inside, hiding from the midday Texas sun. As I mentioned before, he is such a willing horse that I had to take a step back and wonder what I was doing wrong. The answer was: a couple of things.

First, I’m still not too slick with the split reins. For much of the lesson, especially the exercises where I’m softening his neck and shoulders and hips through circles and figure eights, I ride two-handed. But when we get to cantering, I try to ride one-handed. If things were to go badly, I feel like it’s a lot easier to shorten up on the reins that way, and while I’m still building back my leg muscles, I sometimes want to hold onto the pommel at the canter for a little extra help. But it’s not easy keeping the reins even and sometimes I find that they are lopsided, pulling his head in one direction more than the other, which has to be distracting.

Second, and more important, I still slip into a hunter seat. My lower back has a natural arch in it, and years and years of hunter seat riding made me develop a habit of emphasizing that on the horse. So it takes a particular effort on my part to drop my tailbone, tuck my butt, and lengthen that part of my spine the way you’re supposed to do in a Western saddle. I have to imagine that this is somewhat confusing to Dunnie, and I think it was the major issue in preventing us transitioning to the canter. When I stepped back to take a look at myself, I realized what I was doing was sitting forward, arching my back, and using both heels to try to push him forward, but really all I ended up succeeding in was chasing him into a fast trot. Then I was pulling him back, trying to collect him so we weren’t flying around the ring like idiots. I brought him to either a very slow trot, a walk, or to a halt, trying to get the transition from different gaits. No dice. I knew he could do it; I watched my trainer do it on him like a week ago, and he had smoothly and immediately picked up a nice, collected lope for her. I stopped him for a moment and thought about what exactly she had done. I remembered that she really only signaled to him with her outside leg, but I knew there was something else as well. I tried just the outside leg, which still didn’t work on its own, but it put me on the right track. When I pulled my outside leg back to prompt him into the canter, it shifted my weight. Then I pulled up the memory of my trainer doing it in my mind’s eye and watched the rest of her body movement — I thought I remembered her sitting back in the saddle and kind of urging him forward with her hips. So I tried that, and it worked! From a standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter right away. I kept trying the transition a few more times in both directions to make sure we’d got it down. The right is a little bit sticky with the lead, so I’m going to keep working on making that side supple and flexible, but I think I finally understand how I need to talk to him with my body so he understands what I want him to do.

The next step, of course, is being able to sit the canter more, shall we say, elegantly. I do feel my legs getting stronger every day, but I’m also still adjusting to the longer stirrups, so I’m not as tight or as still as I’d like to be. Now that I don’t have to spend all this time sweating it out trying to chase him into the canter, wearing us both out, I’ll be able to practice the actual gait a lot more. My goal is to be able to go all the way around the ring one direction, get the flying change on the diagonal, and go all the way around the other direction by the end of next week. I think that’s a reasonable goal, although when I write it out, it sounds so basic. I really have lost a lot of the muscle I built in California over that 6 months that I didn’t ride.

Little Victories

This week’s rides have been excellent, and I finally feel like I’m starting to settle in and make progress. Last week I didn’t get a chance to ride at all because of the days of storms and historic flooding in the Houston area. All the horses at my barn were fine, just very, very wet. The place was largely inaccessible all week and all of the rings were under water.

While unable to ride, I did attend the National Reining Breeders Classic at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center, which is only about five minutes from my apartment. I wanted to get a firsthand look at what a reining competition looked like. It was exciting to watch, as the competitors entered the arena at a full gallop and the first element in the pattern was a dramatic sliding stop followed by backing up, spinning, and then heading off in a canter. Unlike the showjumping at the Pin Oak, when I look at the reining competition I feel like it is something I could definitely do with some more training.

So this week, I’ve jumped right in to really pushing myself to learn and improve in a productive way. I’m excited to try out showing again (it has been fourteen years since I was last in a horse show, the IHSA competitions I did back in college), and hope to quickly get to a point where I know enough to go to some low-level competitions.

The thing about working with Dunnie is that he’s so willing. If I ask him to do something, he generally does it. While I’m learning new things — the techniques of reining — and he doesn’t do what I ask him for, I can usually assume that it’s because I’m not asking properly, or communicating clearly enough. When that happens, and I’m riding on my own (outside of lesson time), it’s up to me to figure out where I’m going wrong and try to fix it. Ultimately, this is a far more enriching way to learn. Instead of someone else (a trainer) giving me exercises to do and then assessing whether I’ve done them and then moving on, I’m creating the curriculum. I’m still doing a ton of reading and YouTube watching, learning new exercises for making my position better, and for making Dunnie softer and more flexible and responsive. I bring those concepts to the ride, and then I’m the one who has to assess whether they’re achieving what I want them to. I have to feel it myself instead of relying on an outsider observer.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this process is that little victories are very valuable. This is something I’ve also picked up watching Stacy Westfall’s training videos for Jac. Since he’s young and green and she’s teaching him how to do everything for the first time, she doesn’t expect him to be perfect. She rewards small behaviors that are steps in the direction of what she wants him to do, and he learns step-by-step. Although Dunnie is already a well-trained and well-seasoned reining horse, this is the approach I’m taking with him, building on small victories that show me he’s listening to what I’m asking and that I’m at least kind of asking in the right way.  It’s like we’re establishing a way to communicate with each other. I say, “Do this, please,” and if he doesn’t do it, I stop and think about another way to phrase the request, adjusting the position of my hands, or rearranging my seat and the distribution of my weight. Often while we’re standing still and I’m taking a moment to think about what to change, Dunnie will turn his head and look back at me, nuzzling at my feet a little. My trainer says this is great; it means that I have his attention. He thinks of me as the leader of the game, and he’s asking me, “What’s next?”

We had a really productive ride on Thursday where we did tons of exercises and had our longest, most collected canter so far. Cantering has actually been the one thing that’s a bit of a challenge for me to adjust to in the Western saddle. The stirrups are just so long and I keep losing my left one. I’m also not used to the low head carriage and the more rolling lope feeling of Dunnie’s canter — so much so that I thought he was giving me small bucks in the transition, but learned from my trainer that it’s not happening — it just feels that way. After all the little victories we achieved on Thursday, including getting a little more speed and fluidity on the rightward spin (left still needs work), perfecting the shape of our circles, and working on doing figure-eights backwards, I thought we could use a break the next day. It was hot and muggy, so I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager — ride bareback. I thought I’d not only spare Dunnie the weight and sweatiness of his big saddle and pad, but also remove the temptation for me to push us to do a lot of work.

It was an adjustment to being on his back without the security of the Western saddle. He felt so much smaller! But after the initial shock wore off, it was quite nice. We walked almost the whole time, enjoying the breezes that came through the indoor arena, where we’ve been riding all week while waiting for the rains to stop and the outdoor ring to finally dry out. I realized that riding without the saddle can give me a new awareness of my position; without its guidance of where and how to sit, I have to really focus on my posture and the position of my legs. For fun, we did the reining pattern I had watched over the weekend at the NRBC, doing all of the elements at a walk and imagining the crowd cheering us on.  After that, we trotted a short bit just to see how that felt; his trot is so easy to sit to that I could have done it for even longer. My trainer suggested that I get a bareback pad because then I can canter and do more other fun stuff. I’m thinking about it, but I like the idea of having these bareback vacation/goof off days, and will probably incorporate them into our weekly schedule, especially as the summer heats up to near “a hunnert” here in southeast TX.