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.

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For Real

My first horse show as a Western rider (and as an adult) is coming up at the end of September. The last time I rode in a horse show, it was an IHSA competition my senior year of college, 13 years ago.

Dunnie and I have been working hard to get ourselves in shape for the show, but much of the work we’ve been doing is on isolated skills or strengthening specific areas. It’s important work, since I am still learning these skills, and he’s still re-sharpening them, and there has been a lot of really satisfying improvement over the last couple of months. But over the last week or so, things have started to come together on a whole new level.

Reining is going to be just one part of four parts to the show that will also include Western Pleasure, Trail, and Working Cow, but it’s the one I’ve been most focused on. In reining, you ride a pattern of circles, spins, and stops; there are three different patterns that could potentially be the one chosen for us to ride at the show in September.

With just under a month to go, my trainer has started us on learning all three of the patterns and fine-tuning them, so when we get to the show we’ll have them down pat.

You’d think, given my exceptional lack of spatial-relationship sense, that learning and memorizing the patterns would be just about impossible for me. I’ve been notorious in the past for going off course when learning jumping courses, but for some reason these reining patterns make sense to me. The elements all seem to flow together and connect in a way that after I’ve ridden them once, I can visualize them in my head thereafter and go over them in my mind. I realize this is a basic skill that most people take for granted, but for me it’s like I’ve all of a sudden developed mental superpowers.

Even more amazing is the effect all of this has had on Dunnie. There have been times when we’ve tried something new (to me) that I’ve felt stirrings from him, a kind of reawakening of memories of doing all this stuff. But when we started putting it all together with the patterns, it really woke him up. It’s like “Oh, we’re doing this? Like, for real, not just playing? Ok.” He’s always willing, and he always tries, but now he’s also really focused — and it’s impressive how I can feel his impeccable training and his talent shining through.

Despite my many years of riding, I’ve had very few opportunities to ride real working show horses. I’ve been on hundreds of random school horses, with their hodgepodge of backgrounds and quirks. I’ve ridden a few OTTBs and former polo ponies who, while being quite athletic, weren’t originally trained for what I was doing with them. The first time I got on Dunnie back in April, I had zero expectations or preconceptions, because I didn’t even really know what a reining horse was or was supposed to be. I just knew that something clicked with us and I wanted to keep riding him. Seeing him transform, and now feeling him becoming so focused and enthusiastic about what we’re doing has been an incredible experience because he’s getting back to what he was born and raised for, what he was meant to do. And in learning with him and from him, maybe I’m finding that for myself, too.

 

The Thighs Have It

Now that I ride 3 to 4 times a week, I have a lot less time for writing about riding. Which is a trade I’ll take any day. The riding has been particularly good lately, and I chalk that up to two things: 1) a happy horse and 2) strong thighs.

Dunnie has been in a great mood lately, since he started getting turned out at night in the big back paddock with his new girlfriend, who is appropriately named “Happy.” He’s so much less crabby than he had gotten lately, and is back to thinking it’s fun to play with me in the ring.

Dunnie, being happy with Happy.
Dunnie, being happy with Happy.

While one can’t possibly overvalue the merit of having a happy horse to ride, perhaps the even bigger improvement in our riding over the last two weeks has been how strong my legs have gotten. Part of this has been from consistent riding for a few months; the horse muscles are finally getting back to proper shape. The other part is that I have, in anticipation of an upcoming “milestone” birthday, become extra-focused on toning myself up, specifically in the thigh area.

Pinterest has about 3 billion suggestions for how to tone up your thighs, and I’ve been incorporating them into my daily workouts. In the mornings, I do some light thigh-centered calisthenics (leg lifts, fire hydrants, sumo squats, wall sits…I’ve tried them all) in circuits that switch up the exercises from day to day. I go for a half-hour to forty-five-minute ride around midday, hopefully before it gets hot as hell. Then sometimes in the afternoon I go to the gym and either do weight training (which is often upper-body-focused, cuz that’s important too), but also includes squats with a dumbbell over my shoulders, and the leg-press machine. Or I run on the treadmill, or, preferably, outside.

It’s amazing how much of a difference it has made in my riding, immediately. Before, at the lope I’d have a really difficult time going for more than half the ring. I’d be gripping with my legs inefficiently and huffing and puffing because of it. Also, in my weakness I was tensing up my lower back, making it rigid to try to hold on tighter but only succeeding in bouncing against my horse’s movement instead of flowing with it. I went back to Sally Swift’s Centered Riding to remind myself of the right movement for a rider at the different gaits, and it worked like a charm. I took that metaphorical metal rod right out of my back, and now I’m flowing along with Dunnie’s rhythm as we lope around the ring several times, doing large fast and small slow circles, and I don’t feel wiped out from it at all.

I’ve had this picture as my computer background image since approximately 2004. It has migrated across my computer screens through several different jobs. My coworkers would ask, “Hey, is that you?” and I’d reply “I wish.” It’s always been a touchstone for me, even though most of my life I’ve been an English rider. It’s an image that represents the little girl in me, who answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “A cowgirl!” even though I didn’t really know what that entailed, I just knew it was someone who worked with horses.

Me (I wish).
Me (I wish).

Riding Dunnie this last week, I’ve had glimpses of this feeling. We’ll be loping around, and I’ll feel strong and centered and relaxed, and he’s happy and fit and collected, and it’s like I’ve clicked into a place that I’ve only dreamed about before. This mythical cowgirl riding her horse through the firey sunset isn’t just an image I’ve carried inside me for years in those moments; for a few seconds, I am her.

Patience

We went through a phase in the last month or so where things weren’t going great. I think what happened is that Dunnie got over the initial excitement of having someone new to play with. When I got there, he was kinda bored and lonely and so he was willing and interested in anything I wanted to do. But after a bit of that, he decided it was time to play on his own terms, which is how I came to realize how truly smart he is. This usually took the form of doing something weird when I gave him a cue, even very simple things like “trot,” he was seemingly misinterpreting for “weird, crappy half-pass.” We had a lot of difficulty with the canter transition initially, too. And then our spins, understandably rudimentary at first as I learned how to ask for them and as he worked through stiffness and rebuilt those muscles, all of a sudden started deteriorating instead of improving.

I misunderstood what was happening. I thought that as I was going through the learning curve, I had just hit the part where things that seemed pretty simple to learn at the outset  had now reached a deeper level of complexity and revealed that they needed more skill on my part. Perhaps that is true, to a degree. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking turned it into an Ego Thing. Especially during lessons, when I feel like I have something to prove to myself and my trainer in order to feel like I’m progressing.

In reality, what I had on my hands was a bored, smart horse who was messing with me. That’s a situation that requires flexibility, not the rigidity of an ego-driven desire to just push myself and my horse harder. I found myself on some days getting very frustrated with him and myself, and that’s what forced me to take a step back.

I’ve learned recently that the biggest factor in creating frustration or anxiety for me is feeling rushed, and I’m almost always doing it to myself. Obviously there are situations in life which are under time constraints that we have no control over. But I rush myself all the time, for no reason. When I’m learning something new, I just want to know it all and master it all RIGHT NOW. So when I found myself huffing and puffing and growling at my horse like a rabid dog, my first step in getting back on track was to slooooow it down.

Everything I was trying to do, I took to a slower gait, or a lower threshold of success. We couldn’t lope a whole circle without him alternately charging with his head up or breaking down to a trot? So we did the circle at a walk, in good form. Then we did it at the trot. I couldn’t get him to do a left spin at all; he was just twisting his neck and then backing up. So I spent a ton of time undoing that. Forgetting the spin, I just pushed him forward every time he tried to take a step back in response to my cue. I literally just worked forever on getting him to walk forward. After that, I trotted him in very small circles, reinforcing that I wanted forward motion from him (ultimately where the speed will come from in the spin) and that I wanted him to cross over his legs. After awhile of tiny trot circles, I tried to use that momentum to pull him directly into a spin. It worked on the right, but I still got nothing on the left. Finally, I ended up trotting him toward the fence; when its presence forced our forward motion to stop, I immediately put on my outside leg to push his butt over toward the fence, executing a half turn. Even then, I rewarded him taking even one step the way I wanted him to.

This week I’ve ridden twice so far, and in both rides, it seems that my work has paid off.  I’m much more relaxed, because I don’t have rushed, unrealistic goals and a sneaking suspicion that I don’t know what I’m doing. Dunnie is more relaxed and seems to be willing to play with me again on my terms because I’ve extended him patience and clear communication instead of frustration. He’s back to doing things just because I’ve asked him to do them. And now I’ve incorporated a sort of graduated method of working with him in our rides. Push, fall back. We try something that’s a bit of a reach and set a low threshold for what constitutes “success” at that. Then we fall back and doing something physically easy or brainless. I make him do five-foot circles at a walk to build up his spin muscles, and then I just let him trot around without schooling him at all. He’s so much happier. And because he’s happier, he’s easier to control. And because he’s easier to control, I can have a much, much lighter touch on my aids. These last two days I have been tamping down how much I need to touch him on the reins or with my heels to get to the lowest possible amount that makes him react. Often, it’s not much. Being lighter on my aids, in turn, makes him happier. And all of that makes me happier, and on top of it, actually makes me feel like I’m finally getting somewhere.

Happy Dunnie.
Happy Dunnie.

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.

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.

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.

IMG_4743
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.”