Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I'm not your ghost anymore

That subject line doesn't have anything to do with this blog post, I just couldn't think of a subject line and I'm listening to Pandora and a Christina Perry song came on.  I am fighting off a cold and have enough of a earache I'm actually going to drag my sorry butt to the doctor today.  You would think that a person such as myself who is unashamed to admit that I'm a germaphobe would be just fine with going to the doctor but it is such a pain in the butt!  So for the past couple weeks I've been thinking, "Surely this will go away" about the on/off earache and putting off the disruption to my life of having to actually going to sit in the waiting room, then wait in the room, and answer the nurse's questions then repeat it all the doctor and then have her tell me it's just a virus and then have to drive home and have just wasted a couple hours to find out what I already know ... see? I'm starting to sound like my husband who drives me crazy because he never goes to the doctor even when I'm sure he strep throat or some sort of "you need medication" issue.  So, I made an appointment with the doctor this afternoon because I don't want to feel this way when I have to go to work tomorrow.  And like a dork I went to the Mayo Clinic website and saw that untreated ear infections could move into and cause permanent damage to nerves or the brain.  Nice.  Ok, I'm going to the doctor.

In other news I went to pilates yesterday and felt awful half way through but stuck it out (yay?) but it wiped me out for the rest of the day.  I went in to work in early afternoon because I told Miss T.  I'd ride with her but Miss C. was there so she didn't need me for company and I rode Geir in a mounted lesson the evening before so I said I would ride Chip if he needed it because the night before he'd seemed high strung and unhappy in our lesson and maybe he needed some work?  But he had two rides that day with Miss C. so I said I'd just massage some ponies instead while they rode (since I was feeling "off" anyway).  Then Miss C. said that Pal needed to be ridden because he wasn't getting any work at all.  So, I rode Pal.

Pal is a beautiful Palomina who used to be a reining horse and I adore him because of his sweet temperament and impeccable ground manners.  But I'd heard he is difficult to ride because he's very "push button" and sensitive.  And the one time I tried riding him it was a catastrophe.  Miss C.'s advice was that I let him know where to set his head and help him frame up and he'll be fine.  That sounded like stuff I was used to doing.  But when I got on him another person who was out there said not to have any contact with the reins, so that threw the idea of setting his head and helping him frame up out the window.  Well, I could see if my seat and leg cues alone would help him frame up, but in Dressage we use both our seat, leg and rein aids to help frame up.  And when I say rein aids I mean that we communicate through the reins where we'd like their head to be.  We do that by very gentle pressure and release - much like gently reaching up and placing someone's arm in the position you want - you aren't hurting the person at all and your touch and movement is gentle and the the person lets go of their arm and lets you move it where you want and it feels fine to them and they know exactly where you want their arm and it's a win-win.  That's what Dressage reins are like - you NEVER yank, jerk or pull on a horse's face.   A lot of people who don't know how to ride (especially English) don't know that's how you do it and just because we have contact with the horse's mouth with our reins they assume we are pulling and manhandling them.

So, let me tell you what happens when you manhandle any horse's face like that.  They don't like it.  And only a rare horse will put up with it.  At the least they will make faces, hang their mouth open to escape the pain of the bit and move in jerky, tense and unhappy movements and eventually kick out or buck or the like.  More often they will throw their head over and over again, or spin in circles or buck or rear.  People who don't know any better will try harder ways to tie the horse's head down or overpower them so they can't resist if you pull on their face with their reins - and those people are just evil (or very destructive idiots).  But if you put a horse in a plain old snaffle and start pulling on his face he will react and let you know and it won't be pretty and you won't be able to overpower him with just a regular snaffle.  So, those short reins you see in Dressage (unless the horse is tied down or Rolkured ... ugh) are when used correctly just communication and a feel between the horse and rider and there is no "forcing" going on.

Anyway, the other person told me not to have any contact with the reins and whenever I did pick up a gentle contact she'd tell me to lengthen my reins.  Pal wasn't listening to my body cues very well so I assumed it was because I wasn't balanced.  I was advised to correct him which I had to do with kicks because he's not trained to be ridden with a dressage whip and it seemed like I had to correct him every two seconds.  Eventually we figured it out but I felt awful for kicking him so much and I felt really embarrassed that I was not able to ride him ... really at all.  We ended on a good note where he was listening to me enough to walk around the arena and not spin or run in to his friends.  And though I wanted to try riding him again I was afraid it would be a terribly humbling experience again and I hated to do that to him anyway - the being confused and having me kick him so much was not fun at all for him I'm sure.

But yesterday I thought I'd try Miss C.'s advice and ride him the way I would a Dressage horse - use a light, yielding contact and set his head.  What was the worst that would happen? It'd be exactly the same thing - we'd spin to the left a bunch and I'd end up sitting in the middle of the arena so he wouldn't run into Miss. C. or Miss T.'s horses.  It wasn't like they hadn't already seen that happen.

On the ground he was perfect as usual - came right up to me in the field, put his face right into his halter and followed me to the barn like he was so grateful I'd picked him to work.  Grooming and getting tacked up he was so sweet and patient and he just has the nicest expression on his face all the time.  Then we went out to the arena where Miss C. and Miss T. were already warmed up and doing some trot work and Pal looked happy to see his friends were there.  I hopped on and he started to walk away as soon as my foot was in the stirrup so I had to stop him mid-mount (which I haven't had to do since the days of riding Girlfriend - it's a "hot" horse thing).  I thought "this is going to be embarrassing" and picked up the reins, asked him to walk on, and we had just a moment of me telling him (just by using my fingers on the rein without moving my hands) where I'd like his head to be, he rounded his back and started walking where I asked him, totally relaxed and happy.  I thought that might just be a fluke and maybe he was just following Beetle because they're friends?  So, I changed direction and he happily went everywhere I asked him.  And my asking was typical Dressage (and maybe typical Reining? I've heard they're very similar) - a slight turn of my body, no reins except to keep that gentle contact.  The only time I had to even give him a tap with my ankle was to ask him to trot but really all I needed to do was use a forward seat aid and click and he'd trot.  He was such a joy to ride!  He reminded a lot of Girlfriend who I just had to look to the right and she'd turn right and I just had to think "trot" or "canter" and she was so sensitive that she would do it to just the slightest movement of my body.

But I think the issue with him is that he needs that gentle contact with the reins as I kind of "I'm here, I know what I'm doing and I won't hurt your face."  He appears to be one of those horses that being able to feel the rider's hands makes him feel secure and bonded with you.  He can be ridden without rein contact but with it he's amazing.  The problem is though for teaching beginners is that having a light, yielding contact is not something you can just tell someone to do and they will instantly be able to.  You need a lot of physical practice to be able to achieve the ability and "feel" (oh god - now I sound like one of the Natural Horsemanship marketing guys - but it's true, you can't intellectually learn how to "feel" this stuff - you have to do it over and over again until it clicks).    I can fully appreciate that even eight years ago when I hadn't been actively riding for twenty years - I would not have been able to achieve that light contact because it had been too long and I was too out of practice.
But I do have one student who I think is far enough along in her riding that I want her to try riding him now with a light contact.  She struggled with riding him without any rein contact but if she can achieve this light contact I think it will be completely different for her.  So, I'm excited to see how he does with her.   She's balanced enough and doesn't use her reins for anything but communication so I think she'll do ok.  It's when kids are still beginning and not confident in their seat yet and pull on the reins to feel "control" and balance themselves with the reins - that's when it doesn't work anymore and hurts the horse's mouth.  But with Pal, his willingness and ability to listen to your body cues goes up a thousand times once you have that light contact and tell him "this is where I'd like you to set your head" and "I'm always here with you and there will be nothing surprising with your mouth - I will not suddenly pull on your face and I still have the reins up here.  It is all consistent and safe."

That was pretty cool to discover what a wonderful horse he is!

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