The beauty of riding horses is that your "recreation" depends entirely on another living, breathing, thinking being. As much as you have to be mentally and physically prepared for the ride yourself, there is no telling what is going to happen once you commit your body to someone else's four legs.
Let's face it - horses aren't always calm and accommodating. There are times when they can be... shall we say... a little over-exuberant!
This was one of those rides. I could tell my horse was overly excited right from the first step - she was tight through the back and taking short, choppy strides. Her back was actually quivering underneath the saddle. I was listening for the snorts but all I could hear were short, erratic breaths.
That energy had to go somewhere. Instead of taking strong steps forward, she felt like a getting-ready-to-erupt volcano - the energy wanted to surge UP!
1. Change of plans?
I had originally wanted to start with a nice stretchy walk on a long rein, but that was not an option at the moment. There was too much energy to contain. I aborted that mission and chose a more suitable option.
As she was already jigging a few steps at a time in the walk, I decided to give her somewhere to put the lively energy. I eased her into a very small jog, keeping to a few ground rules: you can jog as long as you don't take off (or buck or rear!). The first step on the training scale is always rhythm. So far, there was no sight nor sound of anything rhythmical. It would be our first goal for this ride.
2. Stay under-power
Away we jogged - little wee steps, short and below energy. She still wanted to express her enthusiasm... I still asked for her to keep the tiny steps and soften her topline. As she went to shoot her head high into the sky, I gave her a firm but gentle half-halt on the outside rein. Squeezing on the rein, I also resisted with my seat and pressed in with my outside calf. She responded by erratically dropping her head and then swinging it up again.
This time, I held the half-halt longer, through one step and then the other. This seemed to help more. My horse dropped her neck this time, and kept it there through the next few strides. I could feel just a slight release of tension, and the jigging was dissipating.
3. Use half-halts and circles to develop the rhythm
We went on to doing some circles, keeping them large and only asking for a slight bend. We did a circle here, a circle there, and after more half-halts and topline releases, the short, staccato strides morphed into larger (still jog) steps. It was time to switch to the other side.
The right side was easier. She was already somewhat less tense and she loosened up even more in the right circles. Now the rhythm started to appear - slow, controlled, and ever increasing in energy.
I softened my aids a little. Still not sure I could trust her completely, I was ready with half-halts during the turns and on any inconsistent steps. There were moments that she would take an uncontrolled step or two to the inside. I was there immediately with my right leg, resisting seat and outside rein. I recognized that she would be less than straight on the first few rides and it was perfectly fine for me to support her until she could regain her balance, strength and suppleness.
4. Remember the "Not Canter"?
It was time for a few canter strides. The excitement built again: at the first ask, she started becoming bouncy bouncy and lost the rhythm in her trot. This was the perfect moment for the "not canter". I very gently asked for the canter, and when she became even more stiff and short-strided, I backed off. A few strides later I asked again. She broke into a lurching three-beat and broke stride shortly afterward.
5. Keep looking for "looseness"
Recognizing the tension, I switched to working on the trot. Back we went to an under-power trot, half-halting away to a rhythm and consistent jog steps. As soon as she loosened again in the back and neck, I tried for another canter departure. We took another few steps, and broke stride again. However, this time, she wasn't quite as tense for quite as long. I waited again for the looseness, and then headed into another canter.
This time, we went for a long canter - straight line into circle into straight line. Snorts and deep breaths and I knew we were on the right track!
Next came the canter to the right. There was less lurching and less need for the not canter in this direction. Soon enough, we were bounding along in a beautiful strong rhythm, wind blowing delightfully past my ears.
Our next trot was the pièce de resistance.
I felt the strength of the canter translating into a powerful trot in the next downward transition. Roya became loftier and bouncier with each stride, offering more rhythm, more suppleness and more enthusiasm. She was beginning to work over the back. I could feel her hind end reaching deeper underneath herself through a more powerful hind end and a higher stepping front end. Her neck was higher and fuller, her strides more purposeful and we traveled farther with less steps.
Now it was my turn to "be there". When your horse offers impulsion and enthusiasm, be sure you don't get left behind in the movement. Welcome the whiplash effect of the lurch forward and ride with it. As Roya's trot got bigger, I stayed longer on the forward phase of the posting trot, holding long enough to let her hind legs complete the longer cycle of movement beneath us. I made sure my contact remained steady - no stronger and certainly not pulling backwards to discourage her enthusiasm.
This was the moment to let the trot shine. She was underneath herself and became rounder, bouncier and loftier in her movement. NOW we could explore some glorious trot work. The mental warm-up was over - it was time to let her move and take that energy into some suppling figures.
Now it's time for a little learning!
I headed toward the next stage of the ride - the "work" phase. I asked her to use that delightful trot to do some leg yields, some shoulder-ins and smaller 10-meter circles. We even took a few lengthening steps to free the movement.
I learned at that moment that it was so much better to wait for the brilliance than to force the horse through the tension. (Click here to tweet that if you agree).
It feels at times like the waiting will never be over. We often wonder if we're doing the right thing by not pushing for the end goal. But Roya explained to me clearly that day - I just had to wait and support the horse - and when she was ready and able, she would willingly offer everything she had.
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