Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pie Finds the Soft Spot in Canter, and More on Trust

I had two rides today, on Red and Pie.  They'd both had two days off, and the weather was pretty chilly - low 40sF when I was riding, so they were both pretty energetic.  Red and I worked in both the indoor and the outdoor arenas, and did a fair amount of trotting - it was his first real work session outside and he dealt with the chill and wind very well.  He was distracted from time to time by a horse that was being hand walked around the pasture - this horse is a member of Red's herd, and Red clearly thought he had to keep tabs on what the horse was doing, particularly since it was somewhere it didn't belong (in his opinion).  Red's trot work is going well, although there's still some residual stiffness.  He still tends to slightly drag his left hind toe when walking down steep hills.  He's completely sound at the trot on both diagonals, but still tires quickly and the "push" isn't always there as his fitness rebuilds, and the residual stiffness may be hock arthritis, in which case the regular exercise should be helpful.

I rediscovered yesterday that Red is very worried - afraid would be another word - of lunge whips, particularly if they're making noise.  I knew this about him but had forgotten, since I never work him in hand or on the lunge line using a whip.  Another boarder was lungeing his horses, and he has the (annoying) habit of really snapping the whip.  Red was worried about the noise even when I was grooming him in the barn aisle.  When I took him into the arena, his eyes were bulging out and he was seriously thinking about bolting back to his stall.  I was proud of him that he managed to stay with me, and pay attention to me, even when he was very worried - he did some tail swishing to indicate his tension, but stayed responsive - I'm glad he trusted me that much, and he got a lot of praise.  I don't worry too much if my horses are scared of some things, either because they're new or because of some past bad history before I got them, and I don't do a lot of formal desensitizing - what I want is for my horses to look to me for leadership and be able to trust me enough - I have to earn that trust - to stay with me even when they're very worried by something.

Today Pie and I made a lot of progress with our canter work, and we also had an interesting conversation with another boarder.  The other boarder, who's a thoughtful lady, was doing some groundwork with her horse at one end of the ring, and was also watching what Pie and I were doing at the canter.  While we were taking a break, she said she had a question.  She said it didn't look like I was doing anything, particularly with my hands, which looked like they were staying completely still, but that Pie was clearly moving from having his head up in the air to being round and having a powerful, engaged canter, apparently all on his own.  She wanted to know what I was doing to get him to do that.  I told her that she was right, that I wasn't doing anything - all I was doing was creating a consistent soft space for Pie to find, and since his softness was already well established at the walk and trot, he understood what I was up to and could find the soft spot himself.  When he's soft, at any gait, there is only the weight of the reins in my hand and a live contact - there is no "pull" or tension.

It was nice to have someone actually ask me a question - this is pretty rare and I try to never volunteer information or advice unless asked.  I told her that the first stage in this for me - this goes back a number of years - was to learn to keep my hands and body still - if you're a moving target the horse can't find the soft spot.  The next stage - starting last year - was to develop a following, allowing contact, so that I don't brace even when the horse puts pressure on me.  If I can do this consistently, all it takes is to offer this to the horse and the horse will find it, more and more reliably.  Just by chance, Pie and I made a big leap in our canter work today.  A few weeks ago, he had difficulty even cantering around the ring and struggled with his tendency to invert his neck and stick his head up in the air - his trouble with corners was related to his posture and lack of softness.  Today, he was able to be soft at the canter on both leads for significant periods for the first time, and when he was soft, his canter was amazing - big and round and balanced - and the corners were no problem at all for him.  All it took was my doing nothing - just defining the soft spot and letting him find it.  I was very proud of him and told him so.

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