What is that saying? Tell a gelding, but ask a mare? After nearly eight years together I think I am finally figuring out what that means. You all were right – even a bad ride teaches you something.
When I swung my leg over Gem Monday evening, the plan was to reduce the pressure and make it enjoyable for both of us. I also wanted to pay attention to what I was doing on my own that has been so successful but isn’t crossing over to our lesson. Gem let me know she had not forgotten our last ride by playing hard to catch, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it as she circled around me but didn’t take off to the nether regions of her pasture. It took about 15 minutes of gentle pressure towards her, stopping when she did, then repeating for her to stand still and drop her head into the halter but the process served another purpose outside of catching her. It let me show her that I was listening and would back off the pressure when she responded in the appropriate manner and set the tone right from the start.
Once aboard, I focused on my position and asked for a walk. Gem trotted. I had a few options: I could get after her and make her walk right that minute (what I do in lessons), I could let her get away with trotting instead of walking (what I used to do all the time on my own) or I could try something new which Trainer had me attempt during our last lesson but Gem was too far gone for it to work at that time. I chose option #3. I sat the trot, leaned back ever so slightly and made it difficult for her to trot while making it very clear with my posture that I had no intentions of getting pulled into a trotting frenzy. And it worked!!! After about 5 or 6 trot steps Gem settled back into a flat and even walk without any fighting or fuss. I ignored her attempt at the trot and we continued to walk around warming up and inspecting the pasture ground for any litter or holes to avoid.
After we were both warmed up at the walk, I gently asked for a trot and she responded in kind with a gentle trot. This is where things got a little interesting for me and I plan on talking to Trainer about it at our next lesson. Gem wasn’t foot perfect. She tends to start off in a gentle trot and slowly work her way faster and faster until before you know it you are zooming around at her endurance pace. The key is to not let her get that far. In lessons, Trainer has me do this by using half halts before she starts to speed up. Basically she has me starting to anticipate the change in pace and checking in with Gem frequently to let her know she is to maintain what we are doing instead of reacting once she has already sped up.
As I rode her at home, I realized that I was already doing this, but the way I went about it was very different. Jumping back to lessons again for a second, we work a lot on the 20 meter circle. We circle around and around with the goal to keep the geometry and pace even and consistent with each revolution, learning where she tends to slow down or speed up and countering that by using my aides effectively where they are needed. A half halt at 6 o’clock, a little leg needed at 11, more inside leg to push her out where she tends to fall in at 2 and outside leg to prevent her going too big at 4.
It is a cool little exercise, but it is also one that Gem can fry out on pretty quickly. Circling over and over again can drive the mare to distraction at this stage as she gets bored and then begins to question the sanity behind going around and never getting anywhere. That is when the tension comes in and if I am not careful I’ll lose her all together.
At home though, I rarely circle more than once or twice in a succession. Monday night was no exception to my typical way of working on my own whether in the pasture or in an arena, but since I was particularly aware of what I was doing it registered for once. My method is to ask for the trot. If I feel her begin to speed up, I circle or make a large loop, or change direction, or add in a serpentine or go straight if I was on a circle already. Then we hold that new path until I feel her begin to change when I add in a half halt and then once again use the space to help settle her by changing our path of movement. I change direction frequently as well. In this manner, I keep her brain engaged while being insistent that we neither speed up nor slow down as we work around the space. I use half halts to balance her before turns or changes in direction. I add leg when she begins to slow down and get behind me. When we circle, which I have her do frequently, just not repetitively, I try to use my inside leg for bend and my outside aides but I’m not so good at those yet.
Do we reach the same end result? I’m not sure. Using my method, Gem rarely gets tense or braced. However, using my method, we also don’t work consistently on bend and the correct aides for that as we are always swooping and curving and moving about. I really want to talk to Trainer about it and see if maybe there isn’t a way to slowly work the two methods together until we reach a point where we can circle more and more without Gem losing her mind over it.
Back to Monday. I rode Gem around the far end of the pasture at the trot. I required that she kept a consistent pace, but changed up our direction and geometry frequently rarely doing the same thing twice. She responded by dropping her head and releasing her tension. When she moves like that it feels like she is floating on air. All it takes is me looking where I want to go and she responds. It is all so light and free that I can’t help but smile and laugh. I could ride like that forever.
Things were going so well that I decided to canter. Cantering isn’t our strong suit, so I made a plan. I’d have her trot coming back towards home, and incidentally Pete who decided to graze in the middle of our work area, turn to corner to go back away and ask her to canter in the corner but not keep her on the circle as that tends to just make the canter fall apart. I started to the right for no reason other than we were already gong that way and she picked up the canter no issues. She seemed really happy to be cantering and I let her make multiple large loops around the pasture. She is no different in the canter than the trot in so much as she likes to slowly continue to speed up. If I am not careful she will begin to gallop around having the time of her life. The one down side to my method of keeping her feet moving in different ways is that it is really hard to do that in the canter when you have no idea how to do a flying change and don’t want to just end up counter cantering half the time, but I made sure to circle, go straight and make large and small loops.
When I asked her to come back down to the trot, she continued to canter. Hmmm…back to trying to think through what to do. The options seemed to be the same as at the trot: force her to trot immediately, allow her to continue to canter, or gently make the pressure escalate until she gives me the correct answer. I once again chose option three this time continuing to use stronger and stronger half halts along with a voice command until she began trotting followed by massive amounts of praise. I’m a little worried this approach is teaching her that she can continue to do what she wants until she decides to stop, but for now I ma going to go with it and hope the nagging pressure and praise for doing what I want will eventually work.
The only issue now was that she wanted to canter. The trot became a bit of a mess with tension and a lot of asking to canter whenever my leg touched her and all I wanted was a trot. Eventually she settled and I let her canter the other direction for as long as she was polite about it and then began the process of getting her to trot again. her trot work is always a bit of a mess after a nice canter. She gets fast and braced and decides that all the slow trotting is not worth her time, but I did my best to not get pulled into the fight. Once she trotted nicely without breaking to a canter for a single large lap around the end of the pasture, I called it a night.
It was a great ride. We didn’t fight. I refused to get pulled into her traps and she in turn stayed relaxed and light. I have a lot of questions as to if this way of working her is producing a horse who won’t actually listen unless she decides to or if it is the correct way to handle miss tension. There are times when she absolutely needs to do what I say when I say it: the dressage court is one, but there are also times out on cross country or when in the arena on a jump course where she just has to rebalance or slow down and I need to know that she will. I’m a bit concerned that by allowing her to continue to canter while I continue to ask nicely to get her to trot is teaching her that she can ignore my request until she feels like responding to it. It is the reason Trainer gets on me for making her trot right now, or walk right now or halt right now.
But the trade off for forcing my hand is a tense and braced mare and a ride like Thursday. I’m hoping that by being consistent in my asking and using a ton of praise for when she gets the answer right, that I’m teaching her that my requests won’t go away so she better just do it. I don’t know. Lots of food for thought and a lot to discuss with Trainer next time I see her.
For now I am going to bask in the feeling of Monday’s ride and the relief that came with knowing I hadn’t broken my trust with Gem.