Those days are gone; I've finally decided to keep him. Check back with me next week though. I am enjoying this version of him while it lasts!
If I am frustrated and dejected with where Speedy and I are, I am on Cloud 9 with Izzy's progress. After nearly four years of work, Izzy has finally decided to join my team. My mom and her husband were here over the weekend and even she commented on how obvious it is that he loves me.
My mom is a generous soul. She knows how much I need to ride, so even though they had driven nearly the length of California over the past week, she happily agreed to sit on the mounting block and shoot pictures while I schooled Izzy.
As I rode, I described what I was working on. She loves horses and thinks dressage is pretty cool, but she doesn't yet recognize all of the movements. I am sure it didn't help that we weren't doing them spectacularly either. But even so, it helped her to know what I was at least trying to do.
Right now, my rides on Izzy are no longer about teaching him how to be a good equine citizen. I am now schooling most of the movements from Second Level and even some from Third. The more complicated the movement, the happier he is.
Most days, I can now school the walk pirouettes, the counter canter, and the trot half pass. He loves it all. The turn on the haunches still throws him for a bit of a loop, but if I start it big, he really starts to sit for the second or third stride, and suddenly it's a full pirouette.
The counter canter hasn't come easily, he loves to throw in a flying change, but he now understands it. I simply have to reassure him that I won't let him fall. As long as I have a solid hold on the "inside" shoulder and remind him to stand up on it, he relaxes into the counter canter and holds it easily. We can now do a full lap around around the arena without losing the lead. The flying change is next!
None of what we're doing is fantastic. His stride is still a bit short, but he's begging to stretch, and he is 100% with me. He doesn't check out anymore, and he wants to work. He's enjoying himself, and he genuinely likes what we're doing. I can't tell you how grateful I am that I stuck it out with him. There were many days that I wrote for sale ads with every intention of posting them.
Those days are gone; I've finally decided to keep him. Check back with me next week though. I am enjoying this version of him while it lasts!
Early summer has arrived here in Central California which means our temperatures are solidly in the upper 80s and low 90s. When you're not yet acclimated to it, 90 is hot.
Because I was busy doing a few other things - the Summerlane Farm trail ride, shopping for Mother's Day, and a lesson on Speedy, Izzy had a few days off. At first, he seemed happy to come out and play. He was a bit tense about something in the yard (long story), but he kept his marbles locked up tight.
His walk was mostly fine, but he wasn't really willing to stretch over his back. I tried a variety of exercises including the shoulder in/haunches in on a circle, but he he just wouldn't quite let the tension go.
Sometimes I find that the canter will do what a trotting exercise won't. Izzy disagreed. He refused to pick up a left lead canter. I kicked and asked and kicked some more, but he emphatically said NO, it's too hot. I finally hopped off and got the whip.
From then on, his motor was revved, but he was even more tense because he knew he'd done something wrong, and he hates to be wrong. I didn't even have to use the whip. He finally agreed to pick up the canter but it was not soft nor was it relaxed.
I focused on relaxing my seat and upper body. I insisted that he could only pick up the canter if it wasn't against my hand. As soon as he softened, we walked. We repeated this several times to the left. By the time I asked for a right lead canter, he was listening but was still tight across his back.
The right lead canter is the one that can be the most difficult when he's tense. He doesn't want to give me an inside bend because he falls in on his inside shoulder. He also loses the rhythm of the canter in his hind legs. He'll swap leads back and forth or sort of stutter with his hind legs. All of a sudden I could hear my trainer's voice in my head. Half halt. Where's your inside bend? Half halt! More!!!!
I bent him to the inside to put him on my outside rein, and then I half halted. And all of a sudden I knew why I needed a half halt and what feeling I was trying to achieve.
He had lost the rhythm of the canter, and I could feel that he needed to slow down his front end so that his hind legs could reorganize. It was the clearest sense of understanding that I've had in a while. While maybe not perfectly executed, I could feel that my half halts were making perfect sense to Izzy.
We schooled the canter for a few more minutes. Every time he relaxed and felt balanced, we took a walk break. He was still tight and worried, but he was completely focused on me and was doing his best to do what I was asking. I finally felt like my aids were very specific, and I was actually helping him.
Little by little Izzy and I are becoming a team, and his level of trust in me is growing. He's still not an easy horse to ride, but he's getting less and less complicated. I was thrilled with what we were able to work through yesterday. My diamond in the rough is really starting to shine.
I hate to tempt the universe, but I just have to go ahead and say it: Izzy has been freaking AWESOME this past week or so.
We all know he has his moments. Most of them tend to be not-so-brilliant, but those are quickly becoming less frequent. Okay, maybe more like 50/50. But when he has good moments, they are getting really good.
Over the weekend, he gave me two amazing rides in a row. Yes, IN A ROW! On the first day, the UPS truck pulled in, turned around, pulled out, and basically tried to ruin my ride. Izzy didn't even bat an eye. In fact, he gave me the best connection I have ever felt from him.
As we were trotting around, I just kept asking him to keep his head down. And while he was at it, I asked him to carry the bit at the same time. And then he DID! And it wasn't just for one stride either. All of a sudden, I felt him take the bit gently as he softened through the neck and lifted his back. We trucked around for at least half a circle, totally connected and bouncy. And then of course he lost his balance a bit, but then he was back with me.
The next day, the ranch owner walked by while I was warming up, and then the neighbor came by a minute or two later. Just a month ago, that would have sent Izzy over the edge. I gave him a warning, and after a quick think, Izzy decided that his life is much more comfortable when he lets me do the thinking. We went on to have another great ride.
Since I ride Speedy through the various movements of Second Level, I've decided to be more specific with Izzy as well. For so long it's felt like our rides were more about steering. Could I keep him more or less in a circle or straight down the long side without a leap to the left or right? Now, I am choosing specific movements from Training Level through Second (and even some from Third).
From Training Level, we're doing the canter work: pick up the canter in the corner, circle at B/E, and cross the diagonal with a transition at X. From First Level, we're doing all of the leg yields. From Second Level, we're doing shoulder in and travers. And believe it or not, we even fool around with Third Level's renvers which he finds stupidly easily - in fact I can send his haunches back and forth at will. The other day, we actually did a trot half pass across the entire arena. He was high as a kite and didn't realize what was happening, but he did it so easily.
My winter break is over which means he won't get ridden every day like he was. Hopefully we made enough progress over these past few weeks that 4 - 5 days of riding a week will be enough to keep him happy.
I have learned to appreciate and savor whatever good rides the big brown horse gives me as they don't happen every day. Except lately, they do.
Since my last lesson with Chemaine Hurtado in September, my rides on Izzy have just gotten better and better. One of the things she wanted me to work on was bigger half halts with a quicker release. While I am not suddenly an expert rider, I'd like to think that I have implemented her suggestions.
I know my riding is improving because I can now feel when I start to restrict Izzy. He'll get tense and tighten up his topline and suddenly, I am riding him defensively without giving him the opportunity to stretch down. By recognizing that, I can now give him a firm half halt that says slow the heck down and rebalance yourself followed immediately by a gigantic release that says I trust you not to run off.
The weird thing is that it actually works. Sometimes I have to do it ten times in a row, but by the eleventh time, he's starting to rebalance himself. And if I am methodical about it, I can begin to use just my seat without my hands, and he still gets the message.
Another element that I've managed to add to my riding acumen is this sense of pushing and lifting Izzy up into my hand. I am not sure when this feeling started, but I found myself doing it a month or so ago. Rather than pulling back to get him to soften or let go of the rein, I've developed this need to push him up into my hand. The picture I have in my head is pushing my seat closer to my hands.
I know that my work on my sitting trot is where most of the changes are coming from. I find that I have much more influence over his movement when I sit. And when I remember to lift and tuck my pelvis while also sitting up and lengthening my spine, I get some pretty fancy movement from the big brown horse.
The new saddle is definitely playing a part in this recent spate of good rides, too. Not only does it put me in a better position, but I am finding that I am actually using the knee rolls. I don't think I even felt them in my Custom. In the canter the other day, I felt myself resting against them as I thought about lifting Izzy's withers up with my seat.
And the legal bit? I am still using it once a week. Over the weekend, I had a great ride on Izzy WITH the bit. I even forgot we were using it. He's definitely easier to control with the ported bit with the chain for leverage, but he's definitely figuring out the legal bit.
Our rides now consist of riding movements rather than just trying to get him broke. I am focusing on most of the First Level movements, excluding the trot and canter lengthenings. The connection just isn't true enough for those yet. Other than that, he can hold the counter canter without difficulty, and the leg yields are better than Speedy's.
I am actually having fun and looking forward to the next day's ride. That was not a challenge, Universe!
I hate to even say this as the universe will no doubt see it as a challenge, but man, oh man has big brown horse been kicking some butt! And I mean that in a good way.
Since our last lesson a few weeks ago, he has really been trying hard. Actually, while that's certainly true, it would be better to say that I've been trying hard. I've been focusing on eliminating the "perch" from my seat and using bigger half halts with quicker releases. I couldn't be happier with the big guy.
He's been so good that I've been pulling out movements from First Level to challenge him. He's got a pretty mean leg yield when I remember to control the left shoulder when heading left and bump over the haunches when heading right.
He was so rideable this weekend that I did the single loop at the canter and then played around with a canter exercise that Chemaine Hurtado (owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables) showed me years ago for Speedy. It's a simple canter exercise where you canter off the rail and then back several times down the long side. Not going to lie; Izzy owned that exercise.
Our trot work is our weakest area as he still wants to travel with a retracted neck, but he's slowly getting steadier in the bridle. He does seem to enjoy the more collected movements more than he does the long and low stuff. He's kind of the opposite of Speedy.
Between the two of them, I've got the total package!
The other day on Facebook, I read these three articles from Horse Listening: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. They're worth the read, especially if you're a lower level rider like myself.
If I got it right, the first article describes making contact with a horse's mouth through the bit and reins. The second part explains how when the horse lifts and rounds his back, he is on the bit. In the third part, she talks about that amazing feeling of lightness that can happen when the horse is truly on the aids and collected. While these ideas are relevant all the time, the articles took on special importance this week as I continue to focus more and more on my sitting trot.
As I work on my sitting trot, I'm realizing how much more control a rider can have by sitting. The opposite is also true. A crappy sitting trot can wreak havoc on a horse's way of going, especially a horse as ... sensitive as Izzy.
On Monday, I knew Izzy was going to be a handful. He came into the arena and immediately had diarrhea. This is NOT normal. In fact, he rarely poops in the arena at all, and his stool is never loose. Even so, there he was, staring fixedly at something that I couldn't see. I gave a deep sigh, patted his neck, and told him it would be alright. Spoiler alert - it was!
Since my last lesson, I've been forcing myself to stay conscious of what my seat is doing. That means not allowing myself to "perch." When I perch, I squeeze my legs like a clothespin and my seat bones lose contact with my saddle. The instant I feel myself perching, I relax my legs. I also sit back and tuck my pelvis.
One way that I can tell I am really on my seat bones is that my lady parts feel squished. TMI, I realize, but with the whole sit like a queen, and move like a whore thing, it seems very apropos.
I know I am rambling. What I really wanted to say was how excited I was by Monday's ride. Izzy was tense and worried by what-I-don't-know, but by using my seat and legs (rather than going straight to my hands) to really engage his hind end, there was no drama. I just kept pushing that inside hind farther and deeper until he had no choice but to lift his back and create lightness in the rein.
And in the end, we had a few moments of really good collection. It was so good that we cantered a figure eight on the right lead with no change of lead! Small stuff I know, but every positive moment is a step in the right direction.
When things start to go to hell in a hand basket, readership rises. Watching a train wreck is far more compelling than reading about a Steady Eddy who gets his job done. Right now, I am delighted to be able to bring you the most boring update ever!
Izzy has been so much fun to ride over the past several weeks. We're not going to hit the late winter shows and bring home any good scores or anything, but he is actually starting to work like a legitimate dressage horse.
I wish, wish, wish, I had thought to change that lozenge snaffle out months ago. Since switching bits, Izzy is getting softer through his neck and back, and is sometimes so relaxed that he's actually "flat."
On Saturday, he showed me the horse I knew was in there. Don't get me wrong - he's still got opinions, but like he used to do way back when, he pitched a little fit and then decided it just wasn't worth the hassle. You want to trot? Eh ... I'd rather not. Heyyyyyyy! What's with the pokey spurs? OH MY GOD YOU'RE KILLING ME. Alright, I'm going! And the balking was over. Balking is so much easier to deal with than bolting.
Instead of being stuck at one end of the arena with Speedy as a security blanket, Izzy is now confident enough to use the entire arena. When we get to one of the two spooky corners, we sloooooow down and crawl through them instead of powering through. And if needed, I use lots of bend to show him that we'll be leaving said scary corner really soon.
My trainer shared something on Facebook a few weeks ago that really made me stop and think. It went something like this: instead of working to lighten the rein that the horse is heavy on, try to fill up the other rein instead. Oh sweet Jesus has this helped.
Izzy really loves the right rein which means he is always on it. Tracking left means I am holding up 10,000 pounds in my right hand while the shoulder tries to leave the ring. When we track right, I am always bouncing the right rein trying to get him to let it go already.
Instead of getting him off the right rein, I am now thinking about how to get him on the left rein. To the left, that means less inside bend. Being able to see his entire eyeball and even his cute forehead is not a true bend anyway. I need to use way more outside leg and outside rein to straighten him up so that he can take my inside rein. Works like a charm!
To the right, I simply open the outside rein to give him the room to take it. He can't get on the left rein when I keep it on his shoulder, counter bent. Along with that, I also have to LET GO OF THE INSIDE REIN! It seems so obvious, but especially at the right lead canter, he really wants me to let it go so that he can take that outside rein and stretch down.
All of this is amazing. I am no longer riding a rocket on a string. We now have a half halt that he can hear, a stretchy trot, and canter departures that are not explosions. Pinch me please; I think I must be dreaming!!!!
I don't want to get too excited about simply not dying, but Izzy is really starting to come around lately. Facebook reminds me of all of our ups and downs, so I know this isn't anything new. He's done this before.
What I am liking about our current upswing is that Izzy is showing a lot more maturity. His I don't wannas are way less dramatic and a whole lot shorter in duration. They're also less frequent.
I also like that he's asking to stretch. It's not happening every stride of course, but the fact that he is asking at all says that he's finally realized it feels good to stretch and relax. Ya think?!
We had an unbelievably gorgeous day on Tuesday which meant that I got to ride in the sunshine, weak and fading as it was. The wind wasn't snapping at us nor were leaves skittering under foot. Izzy was "up" since there's so much mud that he can't really blast around in his paddock, but he was listening.
Even with the deck stacked against us a bit, we had a productive ride. He spent most of the time with a tight back, snapping his head up at every sound. But in those moments when he wasn't a giraffe, he was reaching and stretching. He did try to bolt a time or two, but with this bit, I have him back within one stride.
My cure for the bolts, since they almost always happen in the same spot. Is to do a trot to walk or even a walk to halt transition right before the place where he wants to bolt. As we approach the trouble spot, I ask for a walk (or a halt) and then I ask for a stretch. After a few of these, I shorten the amount of time that we are walking (or halting) and pretty soon we're doing trot/walk/trot transitions through the scary place.
And then last night? He was even better: back was loose, neck was loose, and he volunteered to canter. We were BOTH smiling!
While the origin of the expression "to turn the corner" draws its meaning from rounding the last corner in a race, I sometimes see it as working through a maze. Some corners are dead ends, but others get you one step closer to where you want to go. I've hit some dead ends with Izzy for sure, but lately, we seem to be turning the right corners.
A few months ago, I wasn't able to say that. We were definitely hitting dead ends. For whatever reason, the bit I was using was really ticking him off. I lost some ground with him for sure, but since we switched to the correction bit, we are once again building some great momentum.
Bridling is no longer an issue, but I am still working on it. I am not happy with "no fight." I like my horses to almost bridle themselves, so I am teaching Izzy a few things to make bridling even simpler. I want him to lower his head without being asked - he already does this for unbridling, and I want him to reach for the bit rather than waiting to open his mouth until I ask. He's getting close.
In the arena, things are going well too. After our mammoth rain storm on Friday, my arena was filled with puddles. I used them as an opportunity to confirm my leadership and dominance. Rather than let him skirt around the edges, I urged him to step through the middle of each one. Like most horses, he tried diligently to lean around the edges or side-step at the last moment, but with just a bit of steady persistence on my part, he ultimately plodded through them confidently.
A welder pulled into the ranch just as I started my ride which sent little danger! danger! signals to his brain. He could see the welder talking to the ranch owners away in the distance, and he was certain that meant all learning was done for the day. I used that distraction as an opportunity to assert my dominance yet again. To my surprise, he let me talk him out of being worried and distracted.
Knowing that his meltdowns only reveal a lack of confidence makes it much easier to problem-solve. He wants to be dominant but doesn't have the confidence to back it up. Lately, if I show him a safe and calm option, he is happy to follow my plan.
As we worked on Saturday, I reiterated over and over and over again that we go slowly when he's tense, but if he relaxes, we can open his stride. He seems to understand the two rein half halt better and better and as a result is even beginning to soften on his own when I ask him to slow down.
Nothing miraculous has happened over the past month and a half, but I think that by switching out the bit, he is now able to hear me. Instead of running from the pressure, he is now able to soften and get the relief he was looking for before.
Whatever it is, I am liking the path we're heading on, even if there are a lot more corners in our future!
For such a simple pair of words, the half halt is anything but simple. I am pretty sure that entire books have been written about it. The USEF rulebook has this to say about the half halt:
DR108 The Half-Halt
I am not trying to be funny or anything, but holy crap that's a mouthful. Pretty much, if you can perfect the half halt, you're amazing.
When Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was here in December for a clinic, she had me using the half halt in a way that was new to me. She had me use both reins together. I had always thought that the only correct application of the half halt was through the outside rein. It never occurred to me that you could use both reins.
Half halting with both reins has been a huge aha for me. Not that Speedy is getting worked with any regularity, but when we do work, it is getting easier and easier to get his hind end underneath him by half halting with both reins while also adding leg and thinking about lifting his withers with my seat. When I use both reins, I can keep him straight while driving his hind legs forward.
Using both reins to half halt with Izzy has been a game changer. For Speedy, the half halt says sit down a little and lift your withers, and while you're at it, get your hind end back in the conversation. Izzy's hind end is already working in over-drive. The problem is that his butt is pushing with so much power that his front end has to scramble around to keep him from falling on his face.
Izzy doesn't need very much leg to push him forward. In fact, he needs the opposite. He needs to slow down so that he can keep his balance. For the last couple of weeks, I've been using both reins to say slow down followed by a release. Then I ask for a stretch down with the inside rein. The stretch down is now starting to come almost as soon as I ask for the slow down.
Even better is that Izzy is asking to stretch down. This is huge! His go-to has been a hollow back with his neck braced and his head in the air. With the snaffle that I had been using, I couldn't get him to slow down, ever, and he was very reluctant to stretch down to the bit. I know now that he wasn't happy in that bit. Whether he needed more tongue relief or just more room to move his tongue to swallow, he wasn't getting it, and now he is.
I am still using the non-dressage legal correction bit that has a low port with Kimberwick cheeks. Chemaine worried that he wasn't going to take a solid contact with this bit as it's really designed for spoiled horses who don't want to stop. Even though it has a lot of curb action which gives me good braking power, he is taking a solid contact and is getting happier by the day in it. I am able to half halt and get a response quickly which then allows him to stretch if he wants to. And the amazing thing is that he does!
I love finding new ways to apply my aids. Someday, I'll be able to half half Izzy with my inside leg to outside rein, and someday after that, I might even be able to ask with just a shift in my weight. For now, I am so happy with how he is working. Each day, I remind myself to ride the horse I have rather than trying to improve on the horse I had yesterday*.
*I turned this into a meme by the way. Look for it this week.