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.