I've been working with Dawn now for about three and one half years, since my younger daughter left for college. Dawn has been in our family now for 11 years, since she was four years old, but for most of that time my younger daughter was one who rode her. Dawn was very much the horse I didn't want to have - she was at the limit of my abilities to handle and deal with - she's very forward and has been nervous and reactive. But she wasn't going anywhere - she's a forever horse - so I just did what I had to do. My riding has evolved a lot in the past three years - I've learned a lot. And after my very bad fall off Pie in the summer of 2011, I had to overcome a lot of fear and uncertainly and step up for my horses in a big way. The work I did with Heather and Mark in the spring and summer of 2012 made a huge difference - my understanding of how to ride effectively has really grown and I'm now able to actually do a lot of it, not just think about it.
Dawn has been a big part of my growth in horsemanship - I had to improve to be able to ride her effectively. Today was a big milestone - we had our best ride, ever, hands down. Nothing big happened, but I put into place my pre-ride checklist described in the last post, and Dawn just stepped up in response. It was extremely cold - 27F with a wind chill of 21F when I was riding - and the arena doors were open. Dawn was very alert and forward, and had had a day off, but she really connected with me while I was doing my (and her) warmup.
I'm finding the small circles exercise we've been doing very helpful. When horses bend, they really don't bend much if at all in the ribcage - the way the ribs attach to the spine prevents this - the bend is really in the head and neck, the shoulders in front of the ribcage, and the hindquarters behind the last rib. And it's all about the feet, and where they're stepping in relationship to the body and to the other feet. I've found the small circles exercise to be a great check on lots of things - relaxation, how well I'm riding/directing the hind feet, straightness (paradoxically - more on that below) and softness.
When I ride the small circles exercise, what I'm doing is asking the horse to walk the perimeter of a small circle, with a uniform bend and with the hind feet tracking up to the front feet - no hindquarters in or out and no overbend in any part of the body - such as overbending the neck to the inside so the shoulder pops out. And the objective is to do this with softness - no pulling on the reins, just soft contact, or driving with the seat or legs. It's harder than it seems to do this properly, but if you can, you've got the key to straightness - it has to do with what the hind legs are doing. If you look at most horses going down the rail, they're not straight (even if they're not competing in western pleasure) - since horse are narrower in the shoulders than in the hindquarters, the hindquarters tend to track slightly to the inside since that places the outside of the horse's body equidistant to the rail.
Dawn and I did a good bit of this at the walk today, and then at the trot, and I think it was the foundation of how wonderfully she relaxed and softened at all gaits today. We ended with our best canter work ever - she stayed soft, round and forward on both leads and was able to carry herself in a large circle really well. It was just delightful, and I kept coming back to my relaxation and breathing, and feeling/thinking the rhythm, as a way to keep her cantering well. She was outstanding!
Red and Pie were no slouches either today, and my rides on them were also excellent. Once again, I tried to do my own proper warmup, and we also did the small circles exercises. Red tends to be a "gumby horse" and overflex in the neck. Pie tends to "motorboat" - where his front end rotates around his hind end - rather than track up, particularly to the right. If the horse is doing the exercise well, the hind feet will track the line of the front feet exactly - it may even look like the horse has only two feet if the arena has been freshly dragged. If you see two separate lines for front and back feet, the horse isn't tracking up.
Red did pretty well with this at the walk in both directions. With him the key to not overbending in the neck is to make sure he's not overflexed in the neck, and keeping the forward. We had a very good session - we didn't trot small circles since he's still rehabbing from his injury - where his trot work was ultimately relaxed while still forward.
Pie did very, very well too. He struggled with the small circles at first, particular to the right, where he would tend to motorboat and lose the hind end, or else pop his shoulder out and overbend. After he got it pretty well at the walk, we did trot work in small circles - alternating with forward straight line trotting to give him a break - and when small trot circles weren't working well, we went back again to walk (if you haven't got it at walk, you won't have it at higher gaits), and then successfully back to trot in a slightly larger circle, which was what he was comfortable with. Success!
I told all three horses how fine they were - I think they get it - they all looked pretty pleased with themselves.
And big news - Pie has completely his 30 days of full dose doxycycline for Lyme disease. He appears to have made a full recovery - his muscle soreness and crabbiness, as well as his strange dull/extreme spook/dull demeanor, have disappeared, and he's a sweet, athlethic, young (sometimes looky but no big spooks) horse - the horse I bought back in the winter of 2010-11.
It was a very good day with horses.