Speedy was dealing with a mystery lameness in early February which meant no riding for 6 weeks. When I was able to start riding again, the vet stipulated that it should be at the walk for 6 more weeks. Rather than be frustrated with the plan, I decided to use the opportunity to improve my own balance and to improve Speedy's walk. On Saturday, I got to finally test my newfound skills.
I decided to use the rope halter in place of a traditional bridle in an effort to encourage Speedy to stretch his top line. I haven't had the best of luck at getting him to really reach for the contact. He is extremely light in the bridle, but not necessarily in a good way.
Since I've owned him, Speedy has rarely allowed me to trot on him bareback. I don't know if he felt uncomfortable, of if he simply sensed my poor balance and was anxious about it. Walking was no big deal, but whenever I asked for a trot, he pinned his ears, and flat out refused.
Given his reluctance to trot while bareback, combined with the fact that his back is beautifully round (he actually has nice withers, too, but his well sprung ribcage gives you a comfortable place to sit), I felt quite safe riding him bareback even though he hadn't been ridden in more than 6 weeks. And so for several weeks that's what we did; I rode him bareback in a halter.
With such rudimentary tools, a halter and a warm back, there was no cheating or reliance on gadgets. If he wouldn't move over, my aids weren't clear; it was that simple. If he wouldn't stretch forward and down, I wasn't asking correctly. Speedy is an honest horse and while he can be a stinker, he enjoys the challenges of dressage, especially if I am clear in my requests.
Over the weeks that I rode bareback, some amazing things started happening. My balanced improved dramatically for one, and I started to get a much better feel for where Speedy's feet were. Nothing has been perfected, but I started to feel the dance between his body and my own. Being able feel him move his hind legs helped me improve my timing with my aids. Before I knew it, his lateral work got really good, and he started to really round and lift his back. And best of all, I could feel that I was riding him inside leg to outside rein.
Over the weekend, I decided to move back into the bridle while still riding bareback. I discovered immediately that my feel was much more giving than it had been in the past. Speedy really is light in the bridle and doesn't want a heavy contact. For our first ride with the bit, I just focused on maintaining that feeling of a soft connection while still riding him from my inside leg to my outside hand. It was a great ride.
The next time I got on him, we did the same thing: light connection while focusing on a good inside bend. I was amazed at the transformation he has made. His medium walk was really marching and he was working through his back. Once I felt that I had him as put together as I could, I gently asked for a trot. I expected the same, hollowed back refusal as he's always given me. Instead, he squirt forward in a hurried, heavy trot that jostled me around his back.
Instead of pulling back, I sat up, and focused on slowing down his outside shoulder while asking for some sideways movement. To my utter amazement and joy, I felt his back come up under me and he smoothly bent around my inside leg. It was a lovely, lovely uphill trot.
All of the work that we had done at the walk was showing up in his trot. I was able to ask for a rhythm with my seat rather than with my hands, and a half halt just seemed to happen. His ears flicked back and forth to me and he had such a look of concentration on his face.
I had started with a small circle, maybe 10-meters, but I slowly opened the circle up to 15-meters. He spiraled out without hurrying and then gave a lovely, balanced halt with just an exhale. I praised him as though he had just won a gold medal.
We went on to do another short trot to the left followed by another halt and walk. I had him change direction, and we repeated the work to the right, his more difficult side. He wasn't as balanced, but it was still a lovely, rhythmic trot. I simply asked him to slow down that outside shoulder so that he could balance himself better; and he did it.
It was such a rewarding ride. I hesitate to even put the saddle back on. I think I want to try more of this for a while and see how much better I can get. My balance was much improved. I didn't have to grip with my knees to stay on, and I was able to gently sit his trot without feeling like my seat bones were gouging him in the back.
Speedy can do whatever is asked of him; I just need to get better at the asking.