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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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.

Muscle Memory

Another one of the odd things about riding in the city is that I never tack my own horse. Back home on Long Island and at school in Virginia, I always arrived at the barn early for my lessons and groomed, saddled, and bridled the horse I would ride.  This barn is different. First of all, it’s completely disorganized. There’s no tack room, since the guy who owns the place seems to be a hoarder and the room that should be a tack room is filled with boxes, scraps of equipment, and other odds and ends. It makes my organization-loving fingers itch to get in there and straighten everything out. Without a tack room, there seem to be a number of cubbies and corners where the saddles are kept. The bridles are hung outside the stalls, sometimes on a proper hook but most often around the bars of the stall door or stuffed into a bag outside of it.

This disorganization makes the barn a very hectic place, especially on weekends when there are lots of people coming to ride. There are people, like myself, there for a scheduled lesson with a trainer. But there are also a number of walk-ins for trail rides or pony rides. Then there are the barn girls who are there either hanging around or working. They don’t seem to have any set schedule, so the trainers are always trying to figure out who’s staying, who’s going, who’s riding, and who’s working, in order to get somebody to help tack up the horses they need. There are only a limited number of people who know what equipment goes on which horse and where it is stored, so even with helpers it takes a great deal of management.

This weekend was especially hectic for some reason, so while we were waiting for my riding buddy to get there my trainer decided to put me to work. She shoved a big Western saddle into my hands and beckoned me to follow her, showing me the horse she wanted it lifted onto. She then led me down another aisle of the barn and back behind some stalls to a dark, dusty corner I’d never seen where we picked out another saddle for me to put on another horse who I had never met. After that, wiping my hands on my breeches, I said, “Ok, what’s next?” ready to throw myself into the work. I was kind of enjoying myself, walking around parts of the barn I’d never been to, doing the work that I enjoyed for so many years. But now we were ready for my lesson, so she told me I should just go bridle Allie, who had already been saddled and was waiting in his stall.

I walked off confidently, but as I approached his stall, I started to think doubtfully. I realized I hadn’t actually bridled a horse in about a decade. Saddling a horse was no sweat, all you do is put the saddle on his back; it’s like placing something on a shelf. But bridling is more complicated and is something that takes a certain amount of finesse. There are a lot more pieces of leather and buckles to negotiate, and it can also sometimes be a challenge to get your horse to take the bit. The way a bridle works is that the reins are attached to a metal piece called the bit. That goes inside the horse’s mouth and when you pull on the reins, the pressure steers them or tells them to stop. I think it’s important to be aware of this when you’re riding; through fear or through forgetfulness people sometimes treat the reins like a mechanical device, like the steering wheel or the brakes of a car. But it’s a metal thing in the mouth of a living creature. There’s no reason it would hurt the horse if used properly, but it is possible that it could hurt the horse if used improperly, as when people pull too hard or saw at the bit. So yeah, don’t do those things. But my point is, sometimes horses are like “Nuh uh, I don’t want that thing in my mouth,” and who can blame them? It reminds me of the talking door knocker in “Labyrinth” who Sarah has to trick into accepting the metal ring so she can knock.  I had no idea how Allie would react to it, and wasn’t sure I remembered all my tricks from back in the day.

I grabbed the bridle and walked into his stall, talking to him as I opened the door and patting him on the neck gently as I walked in so he wouldn’t be startled. I lifted the reins over his head and placed them further back on his neck. I stood next to his head, kind of awkwardly holding the loose amalgam of straps of leather that is a bridle in my left hand while I asked myself, “Do you remember how to do this?” But then I changed my approach. Instead of standing there trying to figure it out, I just started doing it. I shut my brain off and let my hands do what they remembered. Within seconds, it was done. I held the bit in front of Allie’s mouth, he took it nonchalantly like the lovely gentleman he is, and I pulled the crownpiece over his ears, tidying his mane underneath it and pulling his forelock out of the browband. My brain caught onto what was happening as I was buckling the throat latch and it was awed. It was like there was magic in my fingertips. It gave me that same rushing, tingling feeling in my gut that accompanies the faint whiff of  a scent from childhood, or the first few notes of a bass line from a song that I haven’t heard in years. It was frankly thrilling.