Yesterday, Easter, was a really beautiful day here - 50sF with a bit of wind and on and off sun - so I managed rides on all three horses. I really enjoy riding different horses - I think it helps me learn and not get stuck in just one way of doing things, and it's also interesting to compare and contrast their ways of going, natural tendencies and how they respond to what I ask.
Yesterday, what I noticed was how different they are in how they hold and use their necks, and what that says about their balance, posture, softness and where we go next in the work.
First up was Pie. We went out on the trail for about an hour and did a lot of trotting. We stopped along the way and looked at things - Pie enjoys doing this and seems to systematically take everything in. When we were trotting - I had only the lightest contact on the reins - we were in the sidepull - he volunteered stretching his neck and head down on a couple of occasions - his usual way of going at the trot if I'm not directly asking him to soften is with head somewhat high. I was delighted by this stretching down - I think it means that all the softening work we've been doing is beginning to take and that he's starting to feel that a softer posture with a more relaxed top line may be more comfortable. The softening work is somewhat hard for him, because his neck is very straight on the top line and relaxing that into a curved top line is physically hard work. But I think he's beginning to get the idea of softening and its benefits.
Next was Dawn. The last time I'd ridden her was April 7, but she seemed pretty mellow (for Dawn), so I saddled up and off we went without any preliminary lungeing - she was in the "modified" Dr. Cook's with the fuzzy noseband (I attach the reins to the rings on the noseband instead of the crossover strap rings). She was somewhat bracey, although I did get some softening at the walk. When trotting, she was more braced and also somewhat inclined to rush, so we did circles to help her with her pace regulation. She was able to soften, although not as well as when she's in a bit, as long as we were going straight or bending left. And she's not tending to do the "curl up" anymore - this was the focus of our work last year - to get her to stretch to the bit rather than falling behind it, and therefore to use her whole body correctly. When turning to the right and attempting to get a right bend, it was like riding a piece of lumber - she was really struggling. She hasn't had a chiro treatment yet this year, and I'll bet there's something going on in the first couple of neck vertebrae that's not letting her bend her neck to the right and also soften at the same time - both the joint between the skull and the first vertebra and the joint between the first and second vertebrae have to be able to move freely to allow her to do this.
As an experiment, we did some flexion work to the right while halted - she could do this to the right although it took a little bit of effort, but softening and flexing to the right at the same time just wasn't possible. I'm planning to have chiro done on all three horses after our dentist visit on May 4, and I expect that will help her out quite a bit. She's also been showing some increasing discomfort when chewing, which could be her tongue (she cut it quite badly back in December which is why I'm not riding her in a bit right now) or a dental issue or both - I'm hoping the dentist can give us some answers.
Then Drifter got a workout. This was, I think, my 12th ride on him. We only lunged for a few minutes to check his attention to me - I expect we'll drop that from our routine pretty soon as his concentration and ability to come back to me after being distracted improves. I'm still getting to know him, but I would say that he tends to be a bit of a gumby horse - he freely bends every which way but that doesn't mean anything's connected to anything else - I suspect he may have done a little too much lateral flexion work - I'm not a big fan of that exercise for that reason - I do a little bit so the horse gets the idea but not more than that. But the good thing about softening work is that you can feel the difference between a horse that's softening and one that's just flexing the neck without softening the top line back to the tail or engaging the core. With Drifter, at the walk we're working on him stretching down and relaxing while staying soft, so the front can be connected to the back - the difference in the quality of his walk is noticeable. With that modification, his softening work at the walk is pretty good, although not yet 100% consistent.
We've only just started our trot work. We're working on pace regulation - not rushing (he's Mr. Speedy and thinks he has to go everywhere fast, which may be due in part to his personality and in part to his prior training, particularly if he was a barrel horse) and straightness and focus at the trot. His "gumbiness" presents some issues when I circle to help him regulate pace - he can turn on a dime so tends to rush through this too - sometimes we have to do numerous circles before he understands that he doesn't have to zip around the turn but just turn in a relaxed manner. We did manage some decent softening work at the trot for several steps at the end of our ride, where he wasn't just contracting his neck but actually relaxing and reaching - his trot became instantly amazingly elevated and driving from behind - he's got a lot of potential because his gaits can be so good. I stopped there, jumped off and praised him greatly.
It was a great day with horses - we're expecting a lot of rain this week so who knows how much riding there will be.