Proactive Riding

My intention with starting lessons last year had nothing to do with competition. I’m the least competitive person out there and could care less about ribbons or records. The point was to learn tools with which to help Gem and I better our relationship under saddle, to grow as a rider and have more fun. On Saturday I realized that all those things have come true in a big way and it got me really excited to find out where 2018 will take us.

Farm life has really tired the puppies out. When we finally come inside they immediately fall down and go to sleep. Tired dogs = good dogs. 

The weather was gorgeous, the last of its kind for like the rest of eternity apparently, and I took advantage of the afternoon sunshine to hop on Gem and take her for her second ride in the home arena. Historically, she is a nut job the first few rides at a new home barn, so I kept my expectations low aiming for relaxation and a steady rhythm at the walk and trot and tacked her up in the dressage saddle.

True to form, she was tense and paying more attention to the surroundings than the monkey on her back. I focused hard on my position, keeping my elbows back, my legs longs, my back straight and those darn elbows loose. Gem wasn’t as bad as in years past, but she was also no where near the level we had left off at in early November when I last rode her for real. Wyatt was riding Nash around the arena as well which was a novelty to her. I haven’t ridden her with someone else in the arena except for in warm up twice in over 5 years, maybe longer. She was very focused on what he was up to and once they left the arena, she became obsessed with following them making going past the gate a bit frustrating. Something new to work on, I suppose.

The view out the loft. The house is a ranch style but the last owners built a new master bedroom and added a loft. back there as well. 

The biggest difference though was in how I handled it, a main goal with starting lessons in the first place. When it comes to flat work, I’ve become a much more proactive and thinking rider than I was a year ago. Instead of the cycle of doom of Gem getting tense and speeding up, me getting tense and handsy, Gem reacting by speeding up and hollowing out more, me getting more braced in the saddle etc…until I gave up and got off in frustration, this time I thought about what she was doing, what I was doing and what I could change.

The latest tool to be added to my box is turn on the haunches. A simple and elementary skill that Gem is not good at doing due to two simple traits of hers: 1) she hates my leg touching her and b) any cue to her, or any answer to a cue she doesn’t understand, is answered by her going faster. It is what she knows. This simple task works extremely well to decompress her. When she begins to get more and more tense and is ignoring all my other attempts to calm down, I shut her feet down by halting. She gets a lot of praise. I set her up for turn on the haunches and ask. Typically she will try to move forward at which point I gently tell her to halt again and repeat my ask. Once she steps over, she gets a ton of praise. I repeat this both directions a few times and then ask her to move on. Usually, when she walks off it is in a much more relaxed manner and we can get back to more work without the fight.

All bundled up against the frigid temps and blistering wind. The last few nights I’ve brought the horses in and closed all the barn doors. New Year’s eve it was in protection against the fireworks and then the others were because it reached single digits and nobody needs to be out in that. I was happy that the barn thermometer read 22 inside when it was 7F outside. 

This simple exercise works well for us for a few reasons. First, it stops her feet moving. Since her gut reaction to everything unknown is to go faster, shutting her down to a halt forces her to use her big brain instead. Once halted, this exercise gives me something easily understood for her in terms of cause in effect for praise. She moves her hind legs over even a slight bit, she gets praised. Its a simple progression that she understands which turns a negative session into a positive one pretty quickly. Last, since she has to work pretty hard at getting this, it makes her focus on me instead of the outside world.

This won’t work forever. Once she gets the hang of turn on the haunches the process will break down a bit as she won’t have to focus so hard on me, but hopefully when that happens I will have a new trick up my sleeve.

I bought cross ties for the barn aisle. Hot pink because why not? 

Being able to not only work on turn on the haunches, but to have the thought processes in my own brain working enough to stop the cycle and do something else is a big step forward for me as a rider.

18 thoughts on “Proactive Riding”

  1. Smart, thinking horses like Gem benefit so much from a hyper proactive rider (Q is the same way). I think it’s so awesome that you’ve got more tools in your box to deal with her moments in a more productive way. You’ve really evolved in the past year! I can’t wait to see where y’all are in a few months having an arena at home and so many new tools to approach the sticky moments.


  2. 1) it is so freakin cool / adorable that your son is now your riding buddy!!!! i’m sure Gem will get used to that soon 😉

    2) being proactive is so so so hard for me, and was esp hard with isabel bc… ya know, sensitive mares have that special knack for inspiring riders to be reactive instead. love that turn on the haunches has been such a useful tool for you tho! i think most horses can have one sorta movement or action that serves as a “reset” button for them. with izzy, it was stretchy trot. when the wheels would start falling off, i could change the subject to stretchy trot and it really helped just wipe the slate clean so we could move on and get back to work. sounds like turn on the haunches is working in a similar way for you guys!


  3. I love turn on the haunches for just that thing. You have come a long way in riding Gem so of course she’s better. 🙂 An exercise I used to do with Irish was: halt- turn on the forehand or haunches- trot off for about 20 feet. Halt- turn other way- trot off. Really helped to loosen his tension -both mentally and physically.


  4. i am so excited STILL about your farm!! And so happy you have a barn that you can put them in if you want to and happy you have Nash and Wyatt can ride with you and so on and so on. And Gem she keeps you thinking right?? LOLLOL I love it all!! YAY. (And this weather is INSANE!!)


  5. Glad you’re getting some good use out of your new arena! And ya, being proactive when riding is something I struggle mightily with also, and a reason why I looooove lessons!


  6. They all look so spiffy in their clothes. I’m glad you have a nice barn to bring them in during the nasty weather you all are getting. I can’t imagine below 32, let alone what single digits feel like!


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