AHHHH!! So much happened, so many breakthroughs!!! I started the lesson hyperventilating and visibly shaking with nerves and ended it with a grin and a thirst for more. What more can you ask for from a 45 minute long lesson? Nothing!
The large picture view of the lesson was not earth shattering. We did a lot of work in the trot and canter, then tackled some ground poles, and ended over a tiny cross rail that was maybe 18″. But the power was in the nitty gritty details that gave me the ability to change my conversation with Eeyore and have the tools to deal with his very strong personality without it turning into a fight. Now I am addicted and want more, more, more.
The burning question of the evening was how he would handle the lesson situation as a whole and that answer is a bit hard to pin down. A lot of things were different about Thursday that separated it from previous experiences and I am not fully sure what all made the biggest impact. For starters, a boy on his young pony joined us in the ring. At first, Eeyore wanted nothing more than to crawl inside that pony’s skin, but he eventually got over it and settled in to the work at hand. Second, we were not stuffed on a tiny circle to quite literally spin farther and farther out of control and were instead told to use the entire arena to my advantage. Third, Trainer AB had me work him from the get go. No more walk-halt-walk warm up. She wanted those feet moving from the time I mounted with very little time wasted in the walk. It set the tone right away. Last, Trainer AB hopped in the stirrups after watching me trotting him around. She wanted to get a good feel for him to better instruct me on what to do and it gave us both a lot if insight into the inner workings of his brain.
Things never escalated. Sure, things weren’t always pretty and her end analysis is that he is very difficult on the flat, but workable and we should make huge gains quickly, but nothing ever felt out of control to me. I think this is tricky to explain because he wasn’t magically more compliant, but instead I was given a better way to respond and therefor I never got tense and was able to keep my own brain functioning to counteract his behaviors as they presented themselves. I wasn’t stuck in a negative loop of “don’t do a” and instead could think “do b”.
I really think that not being stuffed on a circle had the biggest impact on the evening. I always hated being shoved on a circle even when I rode Gem. I knew the point was to use the circle to naturally force balance and a slower pace, but when you lack the skill set to have proper bend, use your aides timely, and still remember to breathe, the circle spirals out of control pretty quickly. Yet every lesson, even ones in which I jumped her, I would find myself stuck back on that infernal circle for an hour without relief. This time, I was immediately told to use the entire arena and it gave me more time to react to him and get things back under control without the worry of having to concentrate on the bend and steering. Basically, it let me be the beginner that I am.
After Trainer AB worked him a solid while in the canter, we had a chat about him. She didn’t hate him, so there was that. Her analysis was that he is used to getting his own way and he does this by being a jerk which then creates a rider who is locked down and tense. Once that happens, he is free to grab the bit and run off to do whatever he decided was more fun be that bulging his shoulder, cutting the corner, or changing gait. When she focused on keeping him on the current path and ignored his back end so that he could canter sideways if that is what he chose as long as he kept on the rail and went where she said, he quickly returned to being a normal horse as it was way more work to canter around sideways than to just comply and go where she wanted. I had the opportunity to work on this a lot and it was much easier to do than I thought it would be.
Continuing along in the flat work, Trainer AB wanted me to stop focusing on perfection which ended up being another major breakthrough. When I would ask for a down transition, say from canter to trot, I would immediately get after him for a great trot which is how I was taught in the past. She wasn’t too thrilled with this and said that I need to break it down for him more. He isn’t a baby, but he also isn’t a highly trained professional either so we need to cut him a little slack. When I would ask for the trot, she didn’t care what trot I got as long as it happened when I said. After a few strides, I was then to package him up. So it would look like this: canter-ask for trot-get a flopping limb flailing trot-praise the down transition-3 strides later package him into a good quality trot-ask for walk-get a floppy walk-praise the down transition-3 strides later get a good quality walk-loose rein. I know in the future we will need to get higher quality right away but not where we are at right now. I’m not sure if this had that big of an impact on Eeyore, but it sure took a lot of the stress off me to have that perfection taken off the table. By the time we finished the flat work and moved on to ground poles, he was really relaxed, calm and listening.
The ground poles were really funny. Honestly, by this point we were both caked in sweat and breathing hard so I was surprised we moved on to something else. She did chastise me a bit for calling him lazy. In her opinion he is not lazy and actually has a huge engine and endless supply of fuel. He is just really good at faking it. She set up 4 trot poles on the long side sorta left of center. She warned me that everyone messes this exercise up (spoiler: I didn’t!! Though I did then mess up the next one pretty bad so karma) and to not worry if I did. You can see my awful paint rendition of the exercise below. It was focused on riding away from the poles, bending right, changing bend left, riding over poles, bending left, changing bend right etc…
We started heading towards the gate and he clobbered the crap out of the poles, scattering them everywhere because he was focused on where the pony was and didn’t even see the poles. We bent right, then argued going around left but I kept in mind her instructions to wiggle the reins and let him swing wide if he wants to make life harder and we got around on the path I wanted without wavering and came back through the poles. This time he turned the 4 poles into two jumps with a bounce in the middle. He charged forward, jumped the first two, landed in between 2 and 3, and then immediately jumped out over 3 and 4. She laughed and we came around to do it again. He clobbered them once again going towards the gate, stayed in the trot and didn’t argue about the exit strategy but then once again bounced over them heading back through. She told me that he is a cute jumper. I really liked how she didn’t get upset, yell or criticize me at all through these baubles and instead remained calm, pointed out the positives and had me approach again. It kept me calm and ready to try again instead of dreading the next trip around. It took about 5 or 6 cycles through but eventually he calmly and politely trotted through each way although she helped me cheat a little on the approach that he preferred to canter through by oh so non nonchalantly stepping in front of the line of poles as we came in to them and then just as slowly and non nonchalantly stepping to the side which helped break up the line for him visibly and kept me more focused because running over your Trainer is a bad thing. It was little things like that where she interjected so tiny and quietly that had a big influence and just blew my mind.
Once he went through that exercise no issues, and I was proud of myself for making all the proper turns, I thought we were done. But no. She asked where I was at in my jumping him. I explained that I like to add jumps as a reward for all the flat work but that I generally trot into them all, canter out when I feel ok, and have only done mostly single fences. She said that jumping a course would be extremely difficult on him since his flat work is so complicated at the moment. We couldn’t just do flat work between the fences since well…sometimes it takes us a while to get him on the same page. She did want to do a cross rail though to end it so she kept 2 ground poles and made a tiny cross rail at the end. We came at it towards the barn since that was his better direction over the poles and she wanted me to bend right after. Well, my brain was still thinking of the last exercise, so we cantered away, bent right, bent left and came at it on the wrong lead since I have zero idea how to get a lead change and he didn’t magically offer one up on his own. She laughed and said to just continue going around to the right to approach from the same direction, so we came around again.
She also wanted me to ride the back side stronger which is a big weakness of mine. I get so focused on getting to and over a jump that I sorta stop riding and let the horse do whatever on the backside. Not good. The last time I approached, we hopped over the tiny cross rail no issue and then wonders of wonders I rode him away from that jump like a normal person and then turned once we hit the rail. She let us stop after that with sweat running down both our bodies.
After all of that we had a bit of a chat as to my goals and for the firs time in my adult riding life I had a Trainer tell me “you are a lovely rider and you can do more than you currently think”. She does agree that we have some issues, but she thinks they should be easily fixed with some reconditioning on both our ends and that she may not let me do an amoeba level HT instead hitting starter next spring once we have polished up the flat work a bit. She thinks he is super smart and once he figures out I won’t let him get away with his crap we will make a lot of progress together. I drove home grinning like a fool, had verbal diarrhea all over my poor unsuspecting husband, then repeated the experience to poor Emma who texted me about something else altogether and finally passed out because I was past my bed time. What a great first experience with Trainer AB!