As I mentioned in my last post, my plans for this week included lunging before the first ride of the week (if not more often, especially when the weather was “chilly”), raising the bar when it comes to HM’s response to my leg, and if the trot isn’t good enough at first, go straight to canter. I stuck to my plan, and I had some huge learning moments for myself as a rider when it comes to my mental prep and internal dialogue. That’s one of many things I absolutely LOVE about this mare – after each ride, I unlock another layer and another new puzzle piece.
For instance, I’ve learned that her giraffe impressions stem from three things (although if she ever figures out that I’ve made a list she’ll probably change it up ASAP…). When she resists the bridle in some way, drops/tightens her back, and throws her head up, it’s usually the result of any of these:
- She’s behind my leg
- Her back isn’t warmed up enough and I tried sitting the trot too soon
- She’s trying to look at something scary in order to determine if it needs to be spooked at and to what degree
The biggest factor is #1 – behind my leg. She is so good at doing a nice, pleasant, pretty trot. But there’s rarely any adjustability in it – unless I create it. To get to that point, we have to go through the trot and canter with her head in the air. There’s no point in messing with the bridle unless we first have forward and straight – otherwise, we have a pretty frame that’s utterly useless.
This week, we’ve had some cool weather days, quite a bit of rain, thunderstorms, and wind. Tuesday was cool and windy, resulting in a fire-breathing HM dragon, that I kept on the lunge line because it really wouldn’t have been productive to ride. Wednesday was more of the same, but she lunged quietly yet forward, so I figured I had nothing to lose by getting on.
I’m fairly certain the wind picked up once I was on. There were two other horses in the ring at the time, both of whom were well-behaved and completely unfazed by the palm branches whipping around and the leaves swirling across the sandy footing.
And then there was our friend, HM.
I started out to the right, with relative ease at the trot. Mentally, I was focused inwardly too much, thinking about whether or not I was going to survive this ride. As soon as we switched directions, HM couldn’t handle a) the flower pot ahead of us and b) the short palm tree rustling a few feet beyond the edge of the ring. I wasn’t entirely sure which one she thought was scarier, but I knew either way that if I pushed her at that moment, she would’ve said “Adios, human! Save yourself – or not!”.
So we stood there, contemplating life and all of the choices we had made up until that point. HM with her eyeballs bugging out of her head, me working very hard to force myself to avoid crying, teetering on the edge of “Should I have written my will before this moment? Or can I keep going and live to see my perfect, bombproof Haflinger child again?”
You know that saying the jumpers have about throwing your heart over the fence first, and the horse will always follow? The main sentiment of course being that the horse will feel your hesitation, so ride like you mean it – ride as though you ARE the Grand Prix rider you aspire to be, even if you’ve never ridden past Training Level. Fake it til you make it. Honestly, that’s one of my favorite ways to build my own confidence. Which is what I did in this instance.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a visual of my cartoon heart, happily being tossed a few strides ahead of me every so often as I worked to keep HM trotting confidently towards it. It sounds stupid, but I dare you to try it the next time you ride a spooky horse. It helped me to direct my focus outward instead of inward, and as a result, I was able to unlock a new trot with HM – one that was more lifted in front, with more freedom in her front legs. Every time she spooked at the rail going right (because the rail is a monster in the wind), I sat down, kept her in front of me, and used everything I had to keep her energy circulating FORWARD.
By the time I was done, I felt like I had used the mental and physical (core) strength to ride three horses at once. But I didn’t give up, and I got some freakin’ good stuff out of that ride. She rose to the challenge and stayed with me. I was riding that high for the rest of the day!
Later that week, I spoiled HM by putting her on the massage list for our favorite miracle worker – er, equine bodyworker, Michele Haman, from Equi-Librium Therapy, LLC (If you are in Wellington/Ocala, FL, and/or Lexington, KY and surrounding areas, check her out). She was able to get HM to work through a lot of tough stuff, and by the time she was done, that mare spent a good couple of hours experimenting with how her new body felt. Michele gave us the okay to go back into normal work the next day, and I was excited to see how HM felt under saddle.
Answer: incredible. I noticed a difference the second I was in the saddle. While she was much taller feeling and more balanced overall, the biggest change I noticed instantly was how she felt grounded. Her whole demeanor and energy were focused on where she was going and what she was doing, instead of any outside factors. In fact, she felt so confident under me that I immediately was able to march around the ring on a long rein, without the slightest thought that she might find something scary to look at.
Her trot and canter were instantly better – more forward. I still had to go through our typical warm-up, but the feel she gave me in the contact was SO much more honest. She was evenly pushing, stretching, and seeking the bit when she dropped her head. I spent a few circles in the canter to get her forward without touching the bridle, and once she was ahead of me, she settled into the same level of balance we had achieved the other day when it was so windy and scary out, but with less tension and more willingness to adjust when asked.
This coming week, I’m looking forward to building on what we’ve achieved. I’d like to see that new level of balance happen sooner – and I’d like to hang onto that “just after massage” feeling for as long as we can. I’m going to continue to not compromise on her response to my forward aids, and I’m going to expect her to stay with me mentally. I also need to improve her response to the left bend (don’t throw the right shoulder out), and right rein (I can counter-flex when going left).