New Tools

I am what one might call a “minimalist” rider, in that I like to ride with as little tack and as few extra tools as possible. It annoys me to carry a crop. I do not want to deal with an extra set of reins. I won’t ride with a martingale unless I absolutely have to. And for pretty much my whole life, I’ve managed to avoid spurs.

Much of this preference stems from just liking to keep things simple. Why add stuff on that you don’t need? But there was also an underlying feeling that if I couldn’t get the horse to do what I wanted on my own, using only the aides that come from my  body, then I didn’t deserve to call myself a real rider.

I realize now that this is dumb. It’s the same self-bullying nonsense that I was putting on myself when I came back to riding four years ago in Brooklyn, when I was fighting the anxiety of riding a horse through a traffic circle and into a city park and I thought that dismounting when I felt unsafe was admitting weakness that meant I’d never be strong enough to succeed.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working with Dunnie on some more subtle challenges — getting some more vertical and lateral flexion (making his head carriage more supple and soft), and making distinctions between responding to my leg asking him to move different parts of his body (his shoulder for a spin; his side for a side-pass; and his hip for loping off on the correct lead and getting flying changes). I’ve also been working on slowing him down at the lope so that we can really make a marked change between our big fast and our small slow circles.

One of the biggest challenges in the head carriage and the speed control endeavors has been that it requires me to use a lot more rein than I usually do. In keeping with my minimalist riding sensibilities, I also typically aim for using as little hand as possible. But that’s just not effective here. And unfortunately, when using enough rein to get Dunnie to do what I want him to do (hold his head correctly, or slow down at the lope), the side effect is that he breaks gait, or if we’re walking, just stops entirely. At the lope, that has required a tremendous amount of leg effort to keep him going, and finding the balance where we aren’t stop-and-go has been mostly elusive.

My trainer suggested spurs a while ago. I wasn’t as closed off to the idea as I would have been before, but I didn’t have the right kind.

Spur with rowel.
Spur with rowel.

When I started riding here my first trainer suggested that I get a pair — but the kind I got, while pretty minimal, still had a rowel, which is the spiky, revolving disk at the end that you see in all the cowboy movies. Mine had a dull edge, but nonetheless, the couple of times I’ve tried riding with them, Dunnie got pretty agitated. I didn’t feel comfortable with them.

But this week I finally got myself a different kind — a ball spur, without the rowel.

Ball spur.
Ball spur.

These have a rounded, dull end that is much gentler. It feels more like a thumb pushing into your side and doesn’t have the pinch potential that even the dull-edge rowels have.

Last night I rode with my new spurs for the first time. They take some getting used to. You don’t want to use the spur every time you put your leg on the horse, so I’m having to learn to feel where the spurs end in relation to my bootheel. I’m also really conscious of trying to use them as subtly as I can so Dunnie doesn’t become inured to the sensation.

But using this new tool led to a really great breakthrough. Before, using my reins effectively to get the right head set meant that my natural leg aides (my legs) were not enough of a counterbalance. Now, with a very very slight touch of the spur, I can tell Dunnie that even though I’m pulling on the reins, I don’t want him to stop — I just want him to round his back and push off with his back legs to keep going.

When you’ve been trying and trying and just not getting something right, it can certainly be frustrating. I’ve learned a lot of patience since starting this new discipline, realizing that the horse isn’t going to do something perfectly the first time you ask for it, just like it takes people a lot of practice to master a skill. So I don’t get wound up or upset about it being difficult, or taking longer than I expect it to. But I have to say, that moment when all of sudden you do the tiniest thing differently and it all magically comes together — where you get it, and you also can tell that your horse gets it — in that moment, all the work and all the frustration is completely worth it.

 

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Adjustments

In the post-first-show universe Dunnie and I now inhabit, we’re working on refining some of our technique — particularly, softening and lowering Dunnie’s head carriage. The result of this is that his whole body is carried differently: his back rounds and his legs come underneath him more, moving the propulsion from the front legs pulling him forward to the back legs pushing him forward.

At first, this change felt a lot more comfortable, especially at the canter. The horse is a lot more collected and has less opportunity to get strung out, so it’s easier to sit. However, I noticed at the trot that I was feeling a lot more bounced around than I had been before, and was having a more difficult time sitting deeply in my saddle. I came across an article about correcting common leg, seat, and hand problems and one of the fixes mentioned was stirrup length. Having ridden English most of my life, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make to the Western saddle is the stirrups, both their clunky size and their typically longer length. I’ve been riding with mine on the shortest setting to make myself comfortable, and if I look at myself objectively, my legs do look a bit incongruously crunched up like I’m about to go jump a course in a Western saddle. Thinking about it now, I’m sure that’s contributing to my continued struggles with arching my back too much, and I also suspect it’s causing me to sit with my weight more forward in the saddle — which, in turn, may be making Dunnie more apt to carry his head higher.

So recently I decided it was high time that I put my stirrups down to a more reasonable length and moved them down a hole. Now they fall where I don’t have to lift my leg up to reach them, but can just slide my toes right in.

stirrupsThe first few days that I rode this way were a bit difficult. I felt less secure in my legs, and afterwards could also feel the soreness in some of my interior thigh muscles that I haven’t felt for months. But I’ve been riding with the longer stirrups for a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally starting to feel the payoffs.

It’s another one of those cases where you start doing something new and the fact that you can even do it at all feels like you’re a champ…but then you get a new piece of information, or insight, or make a tiny change and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel.”

That happened the other day when we were cantering around the ring, and I could feel Dunnie’s back rounded, and I could feel myself perched up there, my balance and my posture so different than before. My legs feel longer and my weight in my heels counterbalances the weight of my upper body; I don’t have to grip with my knees or my calves to stay with the motion of the horse — my seat does that naturally. hipsMy back isn’t arched anymore, and whenever I find myself falling back into that habit, it’s immediately recognizable because it’s so uncomfortable. When it’s arched, I can feel the impact of hitting the saddle on my hips and my spine. When my lower back is tucked, the ride is so smooth that I could canter all day.

So lately it’s been more about little adjustments that at first are frustrating, but are ultimately leading to big wins.

Speaking of adjustments…I’m working on a new look for the blog. Hoping to roll it out in the next couple of weeks!

Look Ma, One Hand!

With my first show coming up in just over two weeks, I’ve been training hard to make sure I have at least a functional level of all the skills that will be required to do well. Despite doing some preparation way in advance, there is one thing that I have sort of left to the last minute, and that’s learning to cope with split reins.

For the last couple of months I’ve either been riding Dunnie with English reins on his Western shank bit, or riding two-handed with split reins. In the show, you’re allowed to ride two-handed if you’re using a snaffle, but if you’re using the kind of bit Dunnie has, the rider has to ride one-handed.

Even though I am a pretty light-handed rider, the reins really loom large in my idea of having control of my horse. I’m content to ride on a loose rein when everybody’s calm and things are going fine, but when shit hits the fan, the reins really feel like a life raft in the sea of chaos that can occur.

Riding with two hands also just intuitively makes more sense to me from a balance perspective; it’s much easier to keep the reins even and your horse’s head straight.

But all of that rationalization won’t get me much when the show comes and I have to do everything one-handed, so today I finally started practicing in earnest. The goal I’m setting for myself is to spend the next two weeks (all the time until the show) with only one hand on the reins. Hopefully by then, it’ll feel like second nature.

The biggest challenge that seems to present itself is how to lengthen and shorten the reins. Today I practiced that, first at the walk, then at the trot, and then at the canter. You’re not allowed to even touch the reins with your second hand, so this entails sort of crab-walking your fingers up and down the reins, balancing them against the different fingers to inch in the direction you want to go. Lucky for me, my left (non-dominant) hand is fairly dexterous and responsive (maybe from all those years of playing softball and catching with that hand?). The idea in all the ranch-inspired riding disciplines is that you hold your reins with your non-dominant hand, leaving your dominant hand free to swing a rope.

reins splits

Another challenge seems to be dealing with the long trailing ends of the split reins. They are supposed to lay over the shoulder on the same side as the hand that’s holding the reins, but they are quite long. Mine keep getting caught up on my saddle or saddle pad, and I need to shake them free so they don’t get stuck. And I will admit that I have moderate-to-severe paranoia that Dunnie will trip on the strips of leather that are dangling pretty much all the way down to his feet.

For his part, he does not seem to share this concern, or really any of my concerns regarding the split reins. He seems to be more comfortable with them, and with my one-handed riding. With two hands on the reins, he tends to raise his head more, especially at faster gaits like an extended trot or a canter; with one hand, he is more apt to naturally drape his head low, the way a reining horse is supposed to. So at least there’s that going for me.

Despite my initial reluctance, I feel really good about today’s ride. Since the footing in the ring was a bit sloppy in the middle, it wasn’t good conditions for further practicing our reining patterns, but I think that was a good thing. Being limited to sticking to the rail forced me to get creative about what to work on and I think it was very productive. After getting to an initial stage of being accustomed to the one-handed riding, I started working on controlling our speed less with my hands (ok, hand) and more with my seat and body.

We started at the slowest possible walk I could get Dunnie to do, sitting back and deep in the saddle, and then I worked up to extending that walk to being as fast as it could be without him breaking into a trot. Then I did the same with the trot, using the swing of my hips and leg pressure to extend it. I alternated extending the trot on the long sides of the ring and slowing it down on the short sides, then switched it up and did one long side fast, and one short side slow with the ends sort of a medium pace. I did all of these speed adjustment using as little hand as possible. Then we did it at the canter.

This sort of thing is going to actually be useful in some of the reining patterns we’ll see, because there are times when they ask for a big, fast circle and then a small, slow circle. So speed adjustment is an important skill. But this exercise also helped remind me and reinforce how much more important my body and position are than my hands in controlling my horse. It helped me become more comfortable with this transition to riding one-handed, forcing me to stop relying on my hands for the idea of having control. One hand or two, it’s my position that will communicate much more to my horse.

Equipment Change

My trainer left and now I’ve started riding with the woman who formerly owned the horse I’m leasing. She knows him incredibly well and I feel like we are finally on a really good track towards making some progress.

In the last couple of weeks, Dunnie was starting to get really, really ornery. I wasn’t quite sure why; I speculated that it could have been the arrival of all the summer camp kids, or the ridiculous heat (upwards of 105 with the heat index). But I also noticed that he was becoming less sensitive to my cues and that things we had done pretty well before, like spins, seemed to be getting worse, not better.

It was all a bit discouraging. It was a sort of in-betweeny time for me where I was missing lessons due to all the nasty weather we had and I was just trying to fix problems entirely on my own, and seemingly making them worse. But one lesson with my new trainer shed light on the problem. It wasn’t me; it was the equipment we were using.

I have hated Dunnie’s saddle from Day One. It’s a nice-enough-looking show saddle, but it weighs like 3 tons. I can never lift it onto his back without giving myself a hernia and making him pissed off because I’ve got either the girth or the stirrup stuck underneath it.

And apparently he has been hating it too. Wednesday night my trainer got on him during my lesson to see what was up with him; was he stiff, or just not used to being told what to do, or what? She turned around in the saddle and realized that the saddle looked to be too long and putting painful pressure on his back by his loins. We speculated that it could be the reason he kept pulling his head up much higher than he was supposed to be carrying it, and why he seemed to be charging around the ring like he wanted to do. She also pointed out that the bit he had on was quite harsh, and didn’t give me any leeway with connecting with his mouth without putting a lot of pressure there.

I had some suspicions about the saddle. I’ve been reading Reining: The Guide for Training & Showing Winning Reining Horses by Al Dunning, and the chapter on the importance of fitting the saddle to your horse had some elements that jangled in my mind a little bit. But the equipment that I ride Dunnie in is his. It came along with him, so I kind of assumed that whoever picked it out for him chose stuff that fit him right.

A heavy, Western show saddle.
A heavy, Western show saddle.

Yeah, that assumption was wrong. Last night I went out to the barn to ride again, this time with totally different tack. The saddle that my trainer picked out from the tackroom was seriously about 1/3 of the weight of Dunnie’s saddle, and the saddle pad had a nice split in it in the place where it goes over his withers, so it wasn’t putting pressure there. It was also a shorter length, so it didn’t cut into his back where the other one was. As a nice added bonus for me, the stirrups were a lot less stiff—the leather on his saddle makes it really hard to get the stirrups straight on my feet and I always felt like my ankles were being twisted. Now my feet are straight again and I can put a lot more weight into my heels. We also put him in a different bridle with a less-harsh shank bit, and (yay for me) no split reins.

The difference was staggering. When I got on him last night, he was a different horse. My trainer said she could see him smiling—his ears were up, he wasn’t tense, he felt so much lighter in my hands. He wasn’t charging around the ring with his head in the air anymore, either. When we took off at a lope, I was able to make a slight connection with his mouth like I needed to rate his speed without him getting pissed. And he just naturally carried his head low and relaxed.

Today I went out and rode him by myself in that same tack, and it was great. He was back to being that same willing, happy horse I started riding a couple of months ago—before the accumulation of pain from his tack turned him ornery. And now that he’s not so tense anymore, I can be a lot less tense. Before when we were cantering, he would pick up his head, which would cause me to tense on the reins, which would cause him to slow, which would cause me to tense in my calves to push him forward, which would cause him to speed up too much because I was gunning him, and then back to the tension on the hands again to try to slow him down. It was a feedback loop where we were really frustrating each other. Today, for the first time, we calmly loped a circle the way we’re supposed to. He was relaxed and responded to the slight pressure of my hands to regulate his speed, so I was able to stop my death grip on his sides with my calves, and really sit deeply in the saddle. If he felt like he was going to break, I was able to push with my seat to keep him going. Everything just felt so much more free and flowing.

The whole thing has made me realize the deep importance of having the right equipment for your horse, and for that to be a serious part of the evaluation of what’s going wrong if there seems to be something going wrong. Keeping your horse as happy and comfortable as you can results in a better ride for both of you.