Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Riding Like I Mean It - a Revelation

Sometimes it takes a change of scenery to shed light on things . . .

Here's a story which is preamble to my rides today on Red and Pie.

Yesterday morning, I briefly rode a horse I'd never ridden before.  I know the horse and his owner pretty well and see them on many mornings.  He's a big black and white paint gelding - looks like he might be a QH/draft cross.  He's a sweet horse, and is happy to just jog around the ring, or stand still for as long as his rider likes.

Yesterday, his owner had been riding him in a bareback pad, and had been having the issue she often has with him, where he hollows his back at the trot and sticks his head up in the air.  There's another rider at our barn who rides him sometimes, and she often has the same issue with him.  Neither of these riders says that they are experienced riding bareback, and they were having a harder time under those circumstances. As I was walking through the ring, the owner said I could give him a try, since she'd seen me riding bareback a lot.

He's a big boy - once I managed to climb on board, off we went.  As we walked off from the block, it was clear he was pretty bracey, so I halted and we went to work on our backing to try to break things free.  It took a few minutes, but then he was able to be soft for the back and also consistently at the walk.  When we went to trot, I continued to ask for softness and got a good bit of it, mixed with some bracing.  When he was soft, his trot was just lovely, big and round and powerful, with a lot of forward - very "warmblood" in feel. He was also capable of some very nice lateral movement. When we lost the softness, he would brace and take short, fast trot strides, but we could get the softness back if I was persistent.

Everyone who was in the ring commented on how completely different he looked from the moment I got on - his gaits were powerful and forward, and there was a lot of very nice lifting of the back and softness - he wasn't a slug and he was using his hindquarters.  They asked if I was pulling on him to get him to do this, or squeezing with my legs and I said no.  He was pulling on me when he was bracing, but I was trying to consistently offering him a zero-pressure soft place to be, and once he knew it was there he could find it.  And the forward was coming from the energy level I was communicating to him, not my legs or seat.  I told them that he was going in the manner I expected him to go, which is the way I expect all my horses to go.

To be able to do this, I told them that my hands had to be stable - I had to be able to place them where I wanted and keep them there regardless of the movement of the rest of my body.  Both of his regular riders said that would likely be impossible for them, especially bareback, but his owner said that seeing him move that way gave her something to work towards.

I only rode him for a little while as he's quite out of shape and very fat.  But it was very illuminating . . .

I was thinking today that it's easy to fall into a rut when riding a familiar horse - things pretty much go the way they go and sometimes that's not what you really want - if you take the time to think about it.  In contrast, when I rode the big paint gelding, he was completely new to me, so from the moment I got on I was concentrating very hard on our finding softness together as quickly as we could and then expecting that as our ride went forward.  With Red and Pie, I realized, I often fumble around for a while and we don't get into that soft groove until well along in our ride and even then the softness is often hit or miss.  Some things I've been doing right - like expecting them to stand still for mounting, every time, on a loose rein - and they do it because I expect it - but other things I've been slacking on.

Now some might read this as my saying that my horses have been "getting away with things", or that I needed to be tougher with them.  That's completely wrong - anything that wasn't quite right in our rides was at least 99% my fault because I wasn't being consistent with them in my expectations or actions - toughness has nothing to do with it and not presenting softness consistently has everything to do with it.  And I was interested to see if I could prove that to be true today . . .

So this afternoon, I approached my rides with Red and Pie like I meant it.   I tried to ride them like I rode the paint gelding yesterday - being absolutely clear and direct (which has nothing to do with being abrupt - but that's about train cars, and for another post), while consistently offering them a specific soft place to be, every moment.  Fortunately, we were alone in the arena for our rides, which helped my concentration.

Both rides were outstanding - probably the best rides I've ever had on either horse - it's in there for the asking, and a number of our problems just evaporated, because the softness solved them.

From the first step away from the mounting block, I was asking for softness, every step.  And they gave it to me after a few moments of surprise - the fact that I wasn't getting softness right away is a sure sign that I wasn't asking for it in our work recently until well into our rides.  We also did some backing until the softness came through - it wasn't instant for either horse although Pie got there very quickly - Red had to work his way through this new way of doing things and there was a good bit of bracing at first.  This also meant that I hadn't previously been expecting them to be soft for backing form the beginning. In trot, I was asking for softness every step as well.  We took numerous halt breaks and also did some stretching down at the trot on a loose rein for a rest - Pie did the best he's every done at this.  We did a lot of trot/halt/back/trot work.  Red was fussy on the first couple of upwards transitions to trot, but we just did it and things almost instantly improved.

Both horses were working beautifully from behind, which completely eliminated Pie's tendency to fall in - his turns and circles were just about perfect.  The falling in was due to his being on the forehand.

Part of the abruptness of Red's and Pie's upwards transitions has probably also come from them being on the forehand because the softness wasn't there - it's awfully hard to do a proper transition without resistance or surging if you're on the forehand.  The solution to this was to be sure we maintained softness, and therefore hindquarter engagement, through the transition.

All these changes took was my being very clear and consistent about where the soft spot was to be found, and about not letting that drift away or become unclear for them - think about how reassuring it must be to a horse to be sure that there is a place they can consistently find softness.

It was a real revelation to me - I've been letting my horses down by not being consistent in my expectations of how we can find softness together.  Just doing that transformed their way of going and I think made them much happier with me and themselves.  I'm apparently a slow learner - this is a large part of what Whisper and I were working on together in our private lesson with Mark Rashid last June, and I think I'm finally beginning to get it . . .


  1. You know Mark's four stages of learning: (1) unconscious incompetence - we don't know what we don't know, (2) conscious incompetence - we know what we don't know and have no idea how to do it, (3) conscious competence - we know what to do, but it requires a lot of focus and attention to do it, (4), unconscious competence - we do what needs to be done without having to think about it. I'm somewhere between stage two and three on softness and it's fun learning more and more. Dan

  2. Dan - I think I'm about a 3 on softness in general, and between 2 and 3 on the train car issue . . .

  3. That was a beautiful post.
    May I ask if you ride English or Western? Not that it matters, I just realized that I have never known and am curious.

  4. Cindy D. - I ride both, but I ride exactly the same in both a Western and English (dressage) saddle. My Western saddles are About the Horse saddles, and were designed with the help of Peggy Cummings - the saddles put you in a balanced seat position that is exactly the same as a dressage saddle. (I've found that most typical Western saddles don't permit this and in fact tend to put you in a chair seat with your legs out in front of you.) So, when I ride Western (Red and Pie) I ride with the same seat and posture as when I'm riding Dawn (English dressage saddle). I also don't usually ride with loose reins except for a specific purpose - I'm looking for zero-pressure contact.

  5. Interesting! It's always been my habit to start out with a completely loopy rein and just walk around "however", thinking that that lets my horse (and me) warm up and relax. But I suppose that it also teaches them that they can mostly tune out and slop around... and so can I, which is probably more to the point! I understand that softness doesn't preclude relaxation - on the contrary - but if I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that this "default" warm up was maybe undermining the communication you've been working for. Did I get that right?

    1. Chris - I think it depends. An "intentional", focussed loose rein warm up can be a very good precursor to a session where softness is asked for - but as you point out it's often we who are tuned out and the horse follows along with that. And I also think it depends on where you are with your horses in their training. And loose rein breaks are definitely needed since horses that aren't used to carrying themselves softly from behind may find it strenuous and things need to be worked up to. Also, my horses are in all-day turnout and so don't necessarily need as much slow warm up of muscles as a horse who is stalled more.

  6. Sounds like another "lightbulb" moment for you.

    Proves the point too that so much of successful riding is in your head. That's when the body just kind of goes along with the flow and communicates it all to the horse.


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