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.

Easy Going

Before striking out more on my own—and while I wait for Dunnie’s current lease to end—I’m taking a few group lessons. This week there was some stormy weather that made my trainer move the lesson up and combine two, making it somewhat of a hectic conglomeration of different styles and levels—but this ended up being perfect for my purposes.

My half of the lesson group was about 5 of us in a large outdoor ring, and much of the lesson was devoted to strengthening exercises, which is exactly what I need to get back up to speed after 6 months out of the saddle. We warmed up walking and posting without stirrups. We trotted around doing “7-7-7,” which consists of sitting 7 beats, posting 7 beats, and 2-point for 7 beats. We played a game where we spread out on the rail and had to control our speed and stride length to avoid either passing each other or breaking. Given the trainer’s divided attention, she actually did a great job of giving me just as much attention as I needed—some tips and explanations about how my position should be in the Western saddle—and the rest of the time I was left to my own devices, feeling out my body and my horse and forming new relationships with both.

Despite the long absence from the saddle, and therefore lack of “rider fitness,” I am perhaps at the highest level of general fitness I’ve ever had as an adult, due to lots of weight and cardio training at the gym over the last few months. This is immediately apparent to me when I am riding now, as I’ve focused particularly on building upper-body muscles that contribute to postural strength, especially in my chest and back. Combine that with longer stirrups and a more comfy saddle that encourages the rider to sit back rather than perch forward, and I feel so much longer and taller on my horse than I’ve ever felt.

Dunnie is an incredibly sensitive horse. Not in the tweaky Thoroughbred way, just in the smart and very well-trained way. He knows his job, and he knows his cues, and he’s such a pleasure to ride because of it. In the lesson, I focused on learning his responses to my aides, and realizing that I actually had to tamp them down, using less and less until I found the threshold where he didn’t respond anymore. The biggest example of this was when asking for the canter. Historically, I have preferred to ride horses that required as little hand intervention as possible, and have worked hard to cultivate soft hands. But this is a whole new level. You’re supposed to ride with your reins so much longer, and I’m only holding them in one hand, which sparks some small control issues for me until I remember that I don’t even need the reins to stop—Dunnie will halt with just sitting back and saying “woah.” So the trainer did remind me a couple of times that I could put my hands even further forward, and every time I did, it produced better results in the form of a more connected and energetic stride. When asking for the canter, I was having a tough time getting him started. He was being a bit prickly after having picked up the wrong lead and when we did pick up the right one, he was charging into it. After a quick interval where the trainer jumped on to school him, I got back on and tried again. After a moment of confusion where I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t go forward, I realized it was me—my hand, which felt like it had barely any contact on his mouth at all, was too high. The second I dropped my hand, he moved right away into a rounded, smooth canter.

Everything about the Western saddle is more comfortable to me than an English saddle—except, for some reason, the left stirrup. I think this might be a peculiarity of this particular saddle, but for some reason, the left stirrup twists in such a way that my ankle is turned in and it’s very hard to keep the stirrup when cantering. It’s probably just a matter of adjustment and remembering to keep my weight even, but that’s something I’ll have to work on.

Looking forward to next week and hopefully focusing more on learning reining techniques. But I also find, after just two rides, that I’m looking forward to spending time with Dunnie again and getting to know him better.


First Cold

Today was the first really cold day I’ve had for a lesson. I’ve lucked out with sunny days in the mid-to-upper 50s thus far. Today the sun is occasionally obscured by a gust-fueled bank of clouds and it’ll only top out in the low-to-mid 40s. Although yesterday was pretty similar weather, it always takes a couple days for the horses to adjust to a new season.  My guess is that we’ll keep riding outside for as long as possible; the stables have an indoor ring but it seems barely useable. It is a tiny area inside the barn that probably shouldn’t have more than two small horses in it at a time, if that.

So today was kind of harrowing. One of the strange things about the barn I ride at is that they don’t really seem to give private lessons. You show up and never really know who you’re going to be sharing the lesson with. It bothered me at first, but a) what choice do I have at the moment? and b) it can have its advantages. My trainer is pretty hands-off with me in general, trusting me to figure out what I need to do and then imparting helpful observations about my position or interaction with the horse. When I ride with someone else and her attention is turned to them for a bit, I get to basically instruct myself. I get to remember the things I learned years ago and put them to use again. I have time to adjust to and negotiate with my horse using my own instincts, and then implement suggestions my trainer has offered without having to incorporate new information right away.

Today, though, the number of cold-weather-giddy horses in the ring was unsustainable. We had three in our lesson, and another single lesson going on beside us. The ride out there was marked by conflict: my trainer’s horse crow-hopping and rearing at the cold wind and the construction equipment and my horse coming on too strong, getting up in the grill of the mare in our group, causing both of them to wheel and kick.

That’s really the one big fear I’ve always had around horses. It can be scary if they hop, or shy, or bolt, sure, but I know I can handle that. It’s when they start backing up into each other and the hooves start flying that I begin to panic. It doesn’t feel like there’s much I can do. The first impulse that comes to mind when your horse is moving and you don’t want him to is to pull back on the reins. That doesn’t work here, since in this case that just makes him back up futher. So then I overcompensate by giving him slack on the reins and try to squeeze him forward, but that only gives him room to wheel, giving him leeway to kick and bite. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the lesson went.

We all tried to maneuver around the ring, giving each other enough space to deal with our respective mount’s issues. The biggest and most forward horse circled on the oval in the bottom of the ring, while the pokey mare shared the rail with the somehow normal-acting school horse from the other lesson. That left no place for my gelding, who continued to back up and buck every time I asked him for anything. He was the loosest of the cannons in the bunch. I don’t even think he has that much of a problem with other horses, that was simply his excuse today for not wanting to work.

Since I’ve never ridden this horse before, I didn’t know what to expect. I was shaken by the earlier conflicts and my confidence was low. Eventually, my trainer orchestrated a game of musical chairs in which I ended up on the little mare, who I have ridden before and get along with. She, too, had been backing up and pawing when her rider asked her for a trot, probably having watched how successful my gelding was with that gambit.  But that didn’t work with me. I knew her and I knew her limits (as I didn’t for the gelding) and she wasn’t able to bully me the way he was. It helped that she’s smaller too, but most of it was just that I knew how far I could trust her. She’ll throw some bucks in protest but I doubted she’d truly try to dump me. After some more buck-filled theatrics, I had her moving at a nice trot on the rail. The more experienced of the other two girls had a go at my gelding without much success–horses just have bad days too, sometimes–and I was able to avoid conflict with him for the most part. Once going forward, my confidence returned and I got quickly in sync with my more responsive mount. After all that, my canters today were the best I’ve had since getting back to riding. My lower leg felt snug and the canter was very collected; it felt great and I know it looked great, too.

All in all, I got to ride less time than normal, but it was valuable experience nonetheless, dealing with the antics and interpersonal issues. I’m sure it’ll get real interesting when it finally gets cold enough to move into the tiny indoor ring. (Yikes.)