Maisie and I enjoyed a 25-minute walk on the trail this morning - the weather was just about perfect: sunny, cool and with a good breeze that kept most of the bugs at bay. We did a loop we hadn't done in a while, and I think she enjoyed it. As we walked, we worked on our softening and also on shortening and lengthening the stride at the walk, and also did some halts with momentary standing around. When we got back to the barn, it was time to try a brief bit of trotting - this was the first trotting under saddle since she's been back in work. We only trotted for about 2 minutes tops, and she could barely contain herself with excitement - she was thinking about some cavorting so we did big circles on the grass behind the barn. She managed to hold it together, and felt fabulous in both directions. Then we walked out for a few minutes, and she was done. Hind legs were iced as usual.
One of the other boarders asked me what my plans were to try and avoid future suspensory problems. My answer was to keep her in regular work, be sure to do proper warm-ups and cool-downs, avoid sharp turns and cavorting if at all possible and use her support boots for every ride. And one more thing - keep her weight down. Since we've returned from the other barn, and since she's been laid up, she's regained some of the weight she'd lost. She doesn't have any tailhead fat (yet), but you can't see her ribs at all when she moves, they're hard to feel with your hand, and her neck crest is starting to come back. She's had two episodes of laminitis, thankfully without rotation, both in the spring and both probably grass-related. It's time to bite the bullet and . . . (cue ominous music) . . . use a grazing muzzle. I've used one before with Norman the pony, although that didn't last long as he quickly perfected the art of removing the muzzle within a few minutes of being turned out - he's go to any lengths to get it off. He ended up stuck in dry lot, so I don't know that it worked out to be a good trade.
The muzzle Maisie is wearing is the Best Friend grazing muzzle. She certainly isn't thrilled by the idea, and is still figuring out how to get any grass through the small hole in the bottom. She is able to drink with it already - I saw her do that successfully. And it inhibits grooming with another horse. But she'll get some grazing and grooming time in the early morning when she's in the small paddock with Dawn while I'm doing chores and while I'm riding Dawn, and she'll be able to be out with the herd and moving around all day. I may also try a muzzle with Dawn in the spring to avoid laminitis risk - she's somewhat insulin resistant. Dawn's a bit overweight right now, although she's losing weight with all our work. But she doesn't have a crest any more or any tail head fat, and tends to get thin in the winter, so I'll leave the muzzle off for now.
Dawn and I had another fine work session this morning. She was soft as can be - there was barely a braced step. Now that she's got the idea of softness firmly in mind, today I wanted to work on shaping the softness we already have. When we first started our softening work, one of the things we were trying to avoid was the "curl up", where she would remain braced but put her chin towards her chest. The result of this was that the head position we ended up with was somewhat high, with her poll almost the highest point. My objective with her today was to work on getting her to stretch down a bit and take a somewhat lower position with her head, even if that meant that her head ended up a bit ahead of the vertical - I wanted to encourage complete top-line relaxation and the highest point about 8-10" behind the poll. This would allow her to stretch her neck and remove some residual tension she tends to carry through the lower part of her neck through the top of the shoulders and withers. This would also encourage relaxation and lifting from the core. Once we had this, refining head position won't be much trouble and may in fact just happen on its own as she carries herself softly.
We did a lot of work at the trot, continuously trotting in a large circle while I asked her to softly carry herself in this new position - it wasn't very far from the old position but was slightly different. I just put my hands where they would serve as the "barrier" and let her figure it out - it didn't take long at all. First, I asked for only 3 steps, and then let the reins slowly lengthen (as she got wither scritches from my fingers) so she could stretch down as far as possible while I maintained a very soft contact - she did a lot of trotting with her nose almost on the ground. Then I would softly take up the reins again, asking her to bring her head back into the desired position. We worked up to 5, 7, 9 and 11 steps - it took longer to the right, since that is direction we started in. I could really feel when she completely relaxed the top line - the back really came up and the quality of the trot improved. I was also very pleased that there was no variation in stride length or speed of the trot, no matter if she was working on the new position or stretching down. We walked around on a loose rein to rest and worked on our neck reining and some figures. The other direction went much faster as I expected it would.
Then we worked for a bit on another issue - her tendency to take one braced step when moving from halt into back or walk. The step into back resolved pretty quickly - I just had to maintain my hand position absolutely steadily so the barrier was intact, and be careful not to pull, and there it was. The step into walk took more doing, and as is almost always the case with such things, it was me that needed fixing. What I wanted was what a horse in the field does when moving from halt to walk - and have you ever seen a horse in the field be halted, and then stick its head up and brace as it takes the first walk step? Neither have I, so it was clearly something I either doing or failing to do that was causing her to brace in that first step. I suspected it might be my focus, and that was part of it - I needed to look at a focus point a ways ahead and "draw" us towards it as we stepped into walk, which also kept me from looking down at her head. Looking down and not focussing forwards was driving the energy downwards and requiring her to unstick herself to get that first walk step - hence the roughness and bracing.
But there was something else - I was losing the "forward" that should always be there, even in halt. This was partly mental and partly a matter of where I was focussing. This made it harder for her to move forward from the halt to the walk. To work on this, we did a series of "momentary transitions" at the walk, where we started by momentarily shortening our stride length at the walk, progressing to where we would almost halt, but start walking forward again just before the halt happened - this made sure the forward stayed there. With Dawn, this exercise requires no leg or rein aids at all, just breathing out, "sinking" and changing the rhythm in my mind. She was right on it, and very soon we were able to do the "almost halt" softly and with no bracing or pushing. Since this was easy for her and me, it was also easy for us to do a true halt and then move back into walk with softness and no bracing. We can refine this later by lengthening the time halted, so long as I can continue to carry the focus and forward for her to follow.
To finish, we went back to the trot work we'd been doing previously to confirm that it was all there - and it was - she trotted several lovely circles in the new soft position and also on a loose rein, and it was a beautiful, relaxed, lifting trot.
I'd call that a good day with horses!