After last weekend's clinic with Christian Schacht, I came home knowing that I needed at least a couple of days off. I was physically tired and facing a long week at work. If I didn't work full time, my "recovery" might have been quicker, but given the season (few daylight hours, Christmas errands to run, 30 fifth graders awaiting Santa, a weekend away from home while laundry piled up, etc.), I embraced the notion of a week of no riding.
I didn't last the whole week, as I mentioned on Saturday, but four days out of the saddle is a long time for me. While I puttered at the barn during the week, I mostly just let some new ideas percolate and bubble.
Just in case I was still feeling wore out, I saddled Speedy first as he is the most predictable of my two boys and the least likely to be a handful. To my surprise, he was pretty high right out of the gate and did his best airs above the ground impression. His tail was flipped over his little Arabian butt, and he was snorting and dancing all the way down the street. As dramatic as it looks, he's pretty easy to control if you remind him what a pulley halt is.
Since he was so forward leaving the property, I took a page out of Christian's book and sent him into a big trot down the side of the road where the ground is soft and grassy. We were only able to really trot for about 75 yards, but that was enough to mostly satisfy his need to show off a little.
For the rest of the ride, I just focused on controlling his gait with my seat only, no reins. We also leg yielded back and forth across the road quite successfully. He's getting much better at moving laterally rather than trying to squirt forward with the leg pressure. By the time we finished the loop, I was feeling motivated again and ready to tackle Mr. Hyde … or maybe just Dr. Jekyll.
I quickly unsaddled Speedy and tossed the saddle on Sydney's back. He looked eager to go so I wasted little time with grooming. My barn owners were giving some moldy hay to the neighbor for his alpacas so they were busy loading and chatting at the driveway. Sydney marched past them with hardly a look. Right away my confidence took a leap forward.
As we continued down the road, his head got higher and higher, but I reminded myself to do nothing. I let the reins drape loosely along his neck, and I began to hum a Christmas carol, another Christian suggestion. As we passed by my trainer's barn, Sydney tried to squirt forward in a pseudo bolt, but I bent him into a circle intent on letting him do what he wanted, as long as it didn't involve galloping down the asphalt.
Almost immediately, he stopped and did his giraffe impression. I just sat there with the reins hanging loosely … doing nothing. Eventually he walked on. A few yards later, he came to an abrupt halt, and I again did nothing.
Doing nothing is extremely hard to do. When a horse halts or balks, I tend to be very proactive by sending them forward, even if it is only one step. With my Arabs, this has been a very effective strategy. They aren't allowed to go backward or to the side, but as long as they make some type of forward progress, I release the pressure, pause, and continue to send them forward. Every Arab I've owned has figured out that if I ask for forward, it's best to do it as it's the quickest way to get home.
Christian had me wait it out with Sydney, explaining that eventually he would get bored and move forward on his own. Trusting that counsel was very hard to do, but it proved to be an excellent piece of advice. Several times during the ride, Sydney halted, but when given just a moment or two, he proceeded forward on his own.
While we were walking along, we heard a large CRACK! A man who was behind a solid fence and out of our sight, had cracked a large stick. Sydney did a classic legs splayed in every direction move, but he did it in place and came to a halt afterwards with no direction from me. I hollered out to the man that I was on a horse and would he give us a moment to pass. I patted Sydney on the neck and asked him to go forward again. After a moment, he walked on as though nothing had happened; I never touched the reins.
From that little spook, we approached the scary "dog hill." Sydney again came to a sudden halt and looked at the chain link fence warily. I called aloud for the dog several times, and after I was pretty sure he wasn't going to charge the fence, I asked Sydney to go up. It took every ounce of courage to let him climb up that hill on a loose rein. To keep myself from grabbing him in the mouth, I tucked my pinkies under his pad and held them there firmly. The reins were still in my hand, but I didn't touch his mouth.
From that moment on, I knew that he was going to listen. Instead of slowing him with the reins when he picked up the trot, I simply resisted with my seat and core, and he obediently returned to a walk. The only time I used my reins was to tip his nose in the right direction. I quit thinking about keeping him in a frame and simply let his head and neck be wherever he needed them to be.
Periodically, he would give a deep sigh and stretch down. I continued to hum my Christmas carol and keep my fingers connected to his saddle pad. As we approached the first turn toward home, I felt his whole body tense as he leaned towards the barn. I used the reins to tip his nose away and pressed him back onto the road with my outside leg. He continued forward, but as we neared the entrance gate to the next property, he quickly whirled back towards home. I picked up the reins and tipped his nose back toward the gate while asking firmly with my outside leg.
He wasn't happy about it, but he moved ahead. When he tried to get a bit uppity and jiggy through the trees, I again sat and resisted his trot. I was quite impressed with us both. He listened, and I didn't pull back. We walked down the last dirt road and made the turn to home.
Our immediate neighbor, the one whose property is right next to the arena, has two large labs that love to charge the fence and bark. I always call them out by name before I actually get to the fence. On Friday, the dogs were a little late to my call so we were already passing along the fence line when they came barreling around the corner, barking and running towards us. Sydney swung his to head look at them, and continued walking without a single spooky step. Go figure!
At the corner, I passed by one of our barn owners as she was working amongst the trees. The other owner was approaching with the tractor, but stopped to allow Sydney and I to pass. After we had passed the tractor, some sound spooked Sydney and he dropped a shoulder as he jumped to the side. I just sat quietly and resisted the urge to pull back on the reins. The spook only lasted for a moment, and then we were turning into our driveway, all without any real issue.
During our ride, I also tried a few other Christian suggestions that work with OTTBs. The first is to close your knees when the horse is tense. He doesn't mean to pinch with your knees, just press your upper thighs firmly against the horse to guide and support him. As he relaxes, the rider can relax the pressure. This has some sort of calming effect on horses who have been raced. He also suggested pressing your knuckles into the withers for the same purpose. I tried both of these techniques when I felt tempted to slow Sydney down by pulling back. I am not exactly sure why these tricks work, but they did with Sydney. Christian stresses that these tricks do not work with warmbloods. Probably not with Arabs either!
Doing nothing is very hard to do, but it is something that I will continue to practice. Today begins my return to daily riding. You can bet that we will find several days this week to hit the trail again.