Spring is finally arriving down here and it is my favorite time of the year. Sure it is still oddly overcast and rainy, but it is warm and the flowering trees are starting to burst forth in all their glory.
Tuesday night I headed to RB for the first time in what felt like forever. I had texted with Trainer about Gem’s newest behavior with jumps: namely the fact that she is going over every time but then flying away on the back side. I’m not sure how much to get after her about this since it has taken us just over a year to get her enjoying the jumping game. Trainer was in agreement that we can’t really shut Gem down too much right now in fear of ruining the progress we have made, yet we do need to do something about this new behavior.
The issue we face is that Gem doesn’t do repetition. After the third or fourth time through a particular exercise she shuts down. I’m not sure if this is boredom or what but she shuts me out and decides that it is best to just race through it because you know we are just going to do it again so why bother? This is neither fun nor productive. The problem is that she needs grids in her life, yet the very essence of grid work is repetition. No amount of changing from turning left to turning right helps either. By the end of the lesson Trainer said she was going to have to set up a few different grid patterns scattered throughout the arena next time and have us randomly go through them to keep Gem entertained and focused.
She is a difficult mare, folks.
But back to the lesson….
Trainer always has me start out with flat work. I love that we spend the beginning focusing on bend, installing the half halt and working on m own position. Sometimes that is all we get to do if Gem is being particularly hard. Tuesday Gem was being really wonderful and I even got multiple compliments on my lower leg position!! It is really coming along and starting to feel more natural to carry it under me instead of letting it slip forward forever in a chair seat. After about 15 minutes of figure 8s and circles we moved to the exercise at hand.
This started off with four trot poles set on the short side of the arena in the center-ish. The tricky part for me was making the turn off the rail, dodging all the really fun looking but death defying jumps throughout the arena and forcing Gem to trot through the puddles left by yet another rain storm. There was a lot going on that made the path hard to get right enough to put Gem;s eyes on the poles before we got there. The other learning point was that I need to get better at lowering my hands and pushing them slightly forward to allow Gem to drop and stretch her neck as we went over the poles.
On Gem’s part, she didn’t change her pace or rhythm going over and was a really good girl once she understood what we were up to.
Trainer had me working on alternating between posting and two pointing through the poles and really concentrating on sinking my heels down while giving with my hands. Having the neck strap was a big eye opener for me which I will get into in a bit.
Once we had gone over several times, Trainer added a small cross rail at the end. The first time up Gem gave it the hairy eye, but still said yes and went over. I don’t even know if I can explain properly what I was feeling but it felt so good! Like coming home, you know?
My issue with my jump position was two fold: 1) in an attempt to “release” and not hit Gem in the mouth I would throw my hands way out by her ears which would not only throw her away but also lead to 2) my upper body would be thrown too far forward due to this which would also cause my butt to come too far out of the saddle. All this lead to the bigger issue at hand: instability and an inability to really follow Gem wherever she decided to go.
Of course this all wasn’t solely due to me sucking. A big part of it was that Gem was so squirrely in front of a jump that I had to basically sit on her until we were mid air and then do whatever I could to get over to the other side. Now that she is firmly saying YES every time I ask, I could focus on fixing my own bad habits born out of necessity.
And that is exactly what we did and it felt so good. I felt invincible up on her. Like I could handle anything she threw at me and that made me more aggressive to the jump and made Gem more confident as well.
And all this was due to the neck strap.
Coming into the ground poles, I would post until the jump and then grab that neck strap, sink my heals down and sink really low to the saddle. All this gave me a base of support I have never felt before and even got a huge grin, clap and exclamation from Trainer. It looked as good as it felt although I have zero media to prove it. Having the neck strap to grab meant that my hands stayed low and back while still giving to Gem and this had the domino effect of letting me sink into my heals and keep that butt low. Trainer kept yelling out “sink low to that saddle”.
Once my base felt secure, I knew that no matter if Gem tried to duck left, right or go flying away in a hand gallop that I would be following her and could control the situation. I never lost a stirrup. I never felt scared.
AMAZING doesn’t even come close to it. ADDICTING is better.
Once we nailed the single cross rail, Trainer added a second one one stride out. The first time through the new set up, Gem was pretty unsure but again said a hesitant yes and went over.
Lest you think everything was sunshine and roses, throughout all of this Gem and I were arguing. Going through the mini grid was the easy part (ha!! who am I?!). The before and after were what nailed us every single time. After the first few go throughs, Gem decided that she had this and I was no longer necessary. She would land at the end of the grid and then try to take off a million miles an hour back to the start. The problem is that this leads to motorcycling around the tight turn off the rail, between the oxer and then to the poles. A shitty turn led to a shitty entrance to the grid and a shitty run through it.
I really had to sit Gem back hard to get her to stop and pay attention to my direction. A few times I even halted her to get it through her head that I was still making the calls here. As we kept going, it kept getting worse and worse. Finally Trainer had me mix everything up. Instead of exiting the grid, turning right, making it back around in a circle to the start again, I would turn her right and make a 20 meter circle or make her walk through the middle of the arena all the way back to making a left hand entrance or do a figure 8. Anything except head right back to the start of the grid so that she had to listen to me for direction.
It was both frustrating and a crap ton of fun all at once and I couldn’t keep the grin off my face at the end. The difference in both gem and myself from a year ago continues to astound me. As she gets easier and more rideable, I can focus on myself which makes me more stable and effective which boosts her confidence in me and what I am asking and that it turn makes her say yes more often and the cycle continues.