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.
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 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.
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.
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.