It was still very cold today, with a wind chill of -10F this morning and a high temperature in the teens. I didn't ride Dawn today, but did bring her in at around 10 a.m. - she was warm under her fleece and blanket, but was hunkered down with her butt to the wind and looked pretty miserable. She seemed happy to be in, and stayed in for the rest of the day. We did do a bit of lungeing so she could stretch her legs.
Pie and I have been having trouble with our bend, or lack thereof. I've met some long-necked and long-bodied horses that were like noodles - very bendy, or even over bendy. Pie, who is quite long in the neck and back, is actually quite stiff and reluctant to bend. He's also a horse who can brace and lean, resulting in blocked movement if I use too much leg or hand. Our small circle work has made a big difference, but he still tends to fall in when tracking right at the trot or canter. A large part of this is me - my right bend requires a lot more thought and effort on my part than bending left.
In thinking about Pie's movement, my conclusion is that I've been blocking the free movement of his front end, and therefore his ability to engage, lift and bend. Compensating for this with my hands just makes things worse. One of my biggest riding faults, and one that tends to drive the energy down and therefore block free movement by the horse, is looking down. I've been know to even look at the ground, and pretty regularly have my horse's ears in my sights. All of this results in poor posture - it reinforces my tendency to slump and having my chin down puts the weight of my head more on the horse's forehand. It has lots of other effects, too - it means I lose my focus on where I want to go, and have closed shoulders which adversely affects my hand position. And the more things aren't quite right, the more I stare at his head, and the more I fuss with my hands because I can see that his head and neck position are messed up - he often inverts his neck, or alternately falls behind the bit, both of which put him on the forehand, and he tends to try to place his shoulder to the inside and head to the outside. This can't be fixed with hands, but has to come from the whole horse.
In addition, since Pie is built slightly downhill, all this extra "loading" of focus and body weight on his front end makes it all that much harder for him to carry himself properly. No wonder the poor guy can't bend. Dawn used to have a similar problem tracking right, since she's also a bit downhill and my riding faults were affecting her too. She's a little more bendable than Pie, which helps, and I've been working with her on some things (really working on me) that have helped her a lot. It's about time I used these same tools to fix me when riding Pie - remember that "ride all your horses the same" challenge? This is a good example of that.
So today Pie and I had an excellent ride, because I kept my focus on riding correctly, the way I've been riding Dawn (more on Red in a minute). This involves a couple of things. The most important one is to keep my chin up and my eyes focussed where I am going and fairly high up - I look at the place where the walls meet the arena ceiling - this seems too high but it's a necessary overcompensation for my bad posture - the result is that I'm actually close to straight. And I requested forward from Pie at all times - instead of pushing for more forward I used a secondary cue using a dressage whip - while giving him an opportunity to move unblocked by me. He was really carrying himself well and I could feel him using his hind end to push instead of pulling from the front end. As a result, his trot had a lot more elevation and impulsion.
I also didn't shim my saddle - I've been doing this to compensate for Pie's downhill build. Pie's actually filled out quite a bit since I got the saddle, and it now fits him through the shoulders and withers, where before it was slightly too wide in front. This also required me to sit up and straight, and I found he didn't feel downhill at all - fancy that! And I changed Pie's bit back to the raised Rockin' S snaffle (it's the one at the bottom of the linked page) that we used at the clinic last June - he did a lot of mouthing for a bit but settle to it well - he softens very nicely in it without going behind the vertical and doesn't tend to brace against it. It meant my contact could be live, but very soft.
Then, in addition to keeping my focus up and out (with all the good postural results), hands connected but soft, and making sure we had forward at every step - this meant I had good quality gaits and a good "feel" between me and Pie - I worked on our bending by "carrying" myself to the outside while keeping my focus up and around the turn. This involves mentally, and very minimally physically, going to the outside myself and using the connection/feel with the horse to ask him to go with me. This involves thinking my hands and shoulders to the outside, while keeping my body bent around the corner, and thinking stepping over and to the outside with my own legs. This is mostly a mental/feel thing, with the only physical movement being a very slight movement of my hands to the outside and a slight weighting of the outside stirrup - if it's working the horse goes with me so there's no physical disconnect between me and the horse - I move mentally to the outside and the horse goes right with me.
Worked like a charm, even to the right. Pie seemed pretty happy about the whole thing, perhaps because he could move better and I wasn't pushing and pulling on him and making him crabby.
Red and I also had a very good ride. He's a horse who came to me with excessive bendiness - he was like a noodle with no connection between the head and neck and the rest of the horse, possibly due to excessive lateral flexion work. It took Heather and me quite a while to get him connected from back to front again, and that's now working very well. Red also has the advantage of being built fairly uphill, and is naturally very forward, so my posture and focus defects didn't affect him as badly as they did Pie. But he moves even better than usual if I apply my Dawn and Pie corrections of my riding to my rides with him.
Now that I'm offering Red the opportunity to canter after our walk warm up, all his balkiness/fussiness has disappeared completely, and all of a sudden he's a lot less interested in having to canter first now that he knows he can. Sometimes breaking a pattern of resistance can be best done by sidestepping it rather than forcing it. I expect pretty soon initial walk/trot transitions will be no problem at all - it's no longer a source of worry for him. We did a good amount of trotting today - he had moments of stiffness but by the end his trot was very engaged and forward (some of that could have been my not looking at his head . . .). We did some canter work - a little on the right lead, which is hard for him, and a bit more on the left lead, as well as some canter/trot/canter transitions. It's so much fun to be be able to really ride him again!
Another really fine day with horses - mostly because I worked on me - my horses say they're glad of that!