Thursday, April 5, 2012

Riding Well Always Matters

On Sunday the guys got their feet trimmed, and then we took them out for an easy ride in the fields.  Lately we've been doing some longer trail rides on Sundays, but for some reason neither Robin nor I felt like going out and about, so we stayed closer to home.

It was a fun, relaxing ride.  Partially due to the heat; it was almost 80 degrees and very, very muggy.  It felt more like July than April first.  We took advantage of the sluggish horses and worked on some long trotting up and down the second strip and enjoyed some work in the three hills.  After a while we got to one end of the strip and I thought I would try to lope a few easy circles.  Bear had been great up to that point, and it seemed like a good time to try it since we had never done it before.

He picked it up just fine and gave me a few nice strides, but after that he was running circles like a mad horse.  Digging into the corners, throwing his head a little.  I really had no idea what was going on, but he felt good and strong so I just resolved to ride through it until he settled a little.

That never happened.  We went both directions and had nothing but crazy running.  In the end Bear was a dripping mess and my legs were actually quite tired for riding through all his antics.  When we weren't running he was his normal, totally relaxed self.  We walked back to the barn with no problems, and he listened to every small request I made.

It was very odd, and I spent a couple days feeling bad about how that portion of the ride went.  I think more than anything he was just confused, but I have no idea what was making him confused. 

Wednesday was the perfect April day.  Sunny, sixty, and quite windy.  We rode in the treed lot and both Robin and I had ambitions of working on circles and figure-eights and getting our horses to bend in as a relaxed and 'perfect' a way as possible.  It was just the kind of slow yet demanding work that can reset a less then ideal ride.

I have no idea how much time Bear and I spent walking in circles and figure-eights, but it was a lot. And it was really hard on me mentally.  Since all I wanted was a 'simple' circle, it was so easy for me to get mad at Bear's infractions.  I did do a good job staying relaxed, though, but that is where all my mental effort went.

It did help things.  After a while I was using my legs a little differently than I normally do.  I could feel the inside of my legs getting a little tired and my glutes were working in a way they normally don't while riding.  At the same time Bear was much more with me through the patterns.  We still had our slip ups (I think the wind was particularly distracting for him), but we could always overcome them.

Since things were going so well at the walk I decided to work on getting some excellent circles at the trot.  I figured it would also help us work on some of our speed control issues, which have actually been getting much better.  The first few circles we had some regression, but after just a few laps we were able to hold a very consistent bend and pace.  It felt great.  We switched directions and had no problem going either way.

It is possible I should have ended the ride there, but I didn't.  Ultimately I'm happy I didn't, but we ran into some new problems when I decided to move from trotting relaxed circles to loping relaxing circles.  Bear gave me a little stretch and head toss when he picked up the lope, but once we got moving he was extremely balanced and collected.  It felt so good we kept going for a few laps.

And that is when things deteriorated.  Bear started digging in deep, leaning hard, and kinda running around all crazy again.  At times I actually thought he could throw in a buck, but thankfully he never did. And just like Sunday, whenever I would bring him to a stop he would be his normal, relaxed self.

I went back to the walk to work on some bending and he was again listening to my legs nicely, so we went back to trotting and things got bad again.  He was chargey in the trot, dropping his shoulder, and often picking up a super short lope.  For a little while I thought he might be getting sore, but Robin said his body was moving so unbelievably well that he was almost certainly not sore.  It made sense, his lopes felt effortless and strong, even if I wasn't asking for them.
Bear giving me an energetic and unasked for lope.
But I was at a loss for what to do.  I was tired of just trying to ride through things, and clearly the way I was doing it wasn't working.  Robin suggested I work at only the trot.  Since he was getting very pushy and dropping his shoulder a lot, she said focusing on that issue alone could be a good way to get him thinking again.

Of course she was right.  We went off to do some figure-eights and as soon as he started to lean I just gently pulled him up and back but kept him trotting.  I was worried I'd have to yank him around a bit, which I've been trying so hard to not do at all, but that wasn't the case.  He only needed a few gentle reminders to stay back on his haunches and listen to me.  The trotting felt great, and I could feel the happy Bear expression coming back on his face.

Since things turned around so well I went back to the lope very briefly.  It took a few tries to get a quiet lope going, but we did get it.  The gait wasn't as nice as I've felt in the past, but it was quite good.  And in the end of the ride Bear was extremely attentive to every move of my legs.  He was also significantly softer to the bit than he was in the early part of the ride.

Bear is always surprising me.  It is so funny to think back on the days just before we purchased him.  He was so sleepy and quiet that we thought I'd have him for a year at most and then move on to a different horse.  I am nowhere close to needing another horse.  Our relationship keeps changing and bringing up new challenges for both of us.  After the ride Robin was wondering if Bear is in a place he's never quite been, or hasn't been in a long time.  He is a dominant horse who is naturally relaxed, so it is possible he has come quite far in his riding without having to surrender total control to a rider before.  He is very good at expressing his opinions about what he will and will not do, and for the first year plus of our working together he was always able to get out of things.

But lately I've become a more effective rider, and the methods I am using to communicate with him make sense and are also very firm, which means he can't get out of things like he used to. When we're hanging around before and after rides he is also quite a bit different.  Where he used to fall asleep, now he is constantly looking for me.  If I'm picking his feet or currying his cinch area, he'll reach over and gently nose my back or shoulder.  He used to do this in a rough manner, but not now. It feels like he is comforted by my presence and happy to tell me so. If I change my body language, he stops rubbing.  He knows his place, and he loves that.  Now if I could only communicate so well when our rides get faster in new territory.  I think it is only a matter of time.


  1. I love the title of your entry. So true. It's great that you worked so hard at your circles and figure-8s (that it affected you mentally). The effort you are putting into your horsemanship is inspiring. Sounds like Bear is getting as much out of this as you are.

  2. Thanks, Suzanne! I used to think I was always getting more out of this than Bear was, but now it is seeming like we are more on the same page. It's been great.

    I hope your spring weather has been as nice as ours, and you're getting out for some nice rides.