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The Biggest Compliment

March 21, 2010

In my riding lesson this morning, we explored varying amounts of steady, even contact.  I had spent some time working on this in a dressage lesson and now was my chance to transition this into my jumping lessons.  We first tried to get Carly into a frame by giving to even pressure.  I took up a light contact as we started trotting around. “How much pressure do you have right now?” my trainer asked.

“2 pounds.”

“Make it 10 pounds.”

I increased my pressure (always coming from the elbows!) and Carly threw her head in the air (you’ll notice this recurring theme for today).

“Just keep the pressure steady and even, and wiggle your ring fingers at the same time.  Give this two times around the arena,” my trainer advised.

My shoulders screamed in pain for those two trips around. “I know, it’s really hard and it hurts, but keep asking,” my trainer encouraged.  After the second time around, Carly’s head still waggled in the air and my trainer finally asked me to flex her jaw inside. Her head instantly dropped down.  I let my reins out several inches so she could stretch her neck out some more and presto, we had a lovely frame.  Once again, in a lesson I have gotten her to move beautifully with help from the trainer and I know what I have done in the lesson, but I am not sure why this worked better than when I rode on my own.

“When she gets in the position you want, soften your hands just a little and see if she will stay there.” Nope, not yet.  But she would drop her head down and soften to a wiggle of my ring finger flexing her jaw inside. Last week, I needed to move my whole arm from my elbow to get this response. I have been relying upon suppling her down to get her into a round frame and it is hard for me to remember to keep even pressure and wiggle both fingers before suppling to get her round. New tricks take a little time!

“Now keep that same pressure and ask her to canter.”

Carly jumped up into canter, and her head flew up for a minute.  I wiggled my ring fingers and her head came down into a lovely round cantering frame!  For more than two strides!  We lost our frame and got it back several times as we cantered around the arena.  We have never cantered so well around the ring and I honestly would have been thrilled to end my lesson right there.

But we moved on to jumping and lead changes, still focusing on even pressure.  I have a tendency to apply pressure and when I get Carly where I want her, I just throw the reins at her.  I can’t help it.  I miss going around with a soft loopy rein and all this pressure feels wrong and ugly to me.  At least, that is how I feel until I see how well it works.  For this part of the lesson, we focused on gradually increasing and decreasing pressure, so my movement was more subtle.  In particular, we focused on increasing pressure on the backside of a jump.  Now that Carly is working off her butt better, she gets stretched out in front and can’t get her lead changes.  So I worked on increasing the pressure right after a jump to get her shoulders up, asking for the change (we got some lovely clean ones) and keeping our canter small and steady through out the course.  The first time we went through, my trainer called out the amount of pressure to me: “10 pounds, 15 pounds, 10 pounds” to help me get the idea of a gradual movement, with steady contact, rather than “bumping” her to slow her down.

After about 4 tries, we had made our course, complete with lead changes, pretty and then we moved on to the dreaded “short four stride” line for schooling.  Carly has a naturally long stride, so getting the pony strides on a shorter line can be very challenging – the horse strides in this situation are much easier for us to get.  She was getting heavy up front by this point and was ignoring my hands. The first time we rode this line in 3 easy strides. My trainer said “You rode that perfectly, but she is ignoring you. Go up to that first jump and halt in front of it.” We did this and Carly was PISSED OFF. She stopped, but she tossed her head in the air in protest, like she was some hot thoroughbred right off the track. (She’s a mega-lazy Quarter Horse.) The next time, Gina asked me to sit her down in the middle of the line.   I didn’t manage to halt her before the line, but I did get my four strides.

“Remember this is schooling, don’t worry about pretty.”  My trainer can read my mind. She knows I would rather go around with loopy reins, like a leaf floating down the river, with Carly leading the way than get in a fight with her about where to go. We halted a few more times, although I never did manage a halt in the middle of the line.  By the end, Carly was listening to my hand and we had our four strides in that evil line.

I learned a lot about the feel of contact in this lesson and my trainer rewarded my hard work with the biggest compliment that I can imagine: “Now you’re starting to ride like me and bust her when she is not listening to you. Now, when she’s rotten, Carly will just need a little Linda in her life”.

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