I started out by giving Sydney a thorough grooming. It wasn't that he was particularly dirty, but I felt the need to reconnect. I also pulled his mane and conditioned his tail. He's a very good boy when it comes to mane pulling, but I think I tested his patience. I gave him a number of breaks, but by the last couple of tugs, I could tell that he was getting annoyed. I gave him a final go-over with a soft brush and led him out onto the lawn to graze.
By the time that I started saddling, his anxiety to finally do something had gotten the better of him. While he stood still to be tacked up, he wasn't the head drooping, ear flopping fellow that he usually is. I grabbed the side reins and lunge line.
I rarely lunge Sydney as it actually makes him more anxious. I am pretty sure that in his previous life lunging was done to simply run the energy out of him. Over the nearly three years that I've owned him, I've used the lunge line only when I've had a very specific plan, never to get rid of extra energy. On this day, I needed him to relax his body so that when I got on, he wasn't a rocket on a string. Since I knew he was going to resist the contact, I attached the side reins, but I set them to the loosest setting.
I had him change directions and got pretty much the same result. He was very tense to the right and just seemed worried. The neighbors were having a family bar-be-que and my barn owners were doing tractor work. On most days, these things might illicit a spook or two, but Sydney was ready to just lose it.
I lunged him for about 10 minutes. Not enough to even make him sweat or breath hard, but long enough that he got to move while giving the world the stink eye. I really didn't want to get on him, but I wanted to help him see that the world wasn't going to eat him up.
By the time I had the side reins unhooked and the lunge line coiled up, he looked much more relaxed. He stood quietly while I mounted, but I could feel that anxious buzz as soon as I asked him to do a walk warm up. He was primed for a bolt and whirl. Rather than give him the opportunity, I cut across the arena and walked back to our "safe" end. And then we just walked.
We spent the next 30 minutes or so just walking, but with a purpose. I had him do 10-meter figure eights until he started to reach and stretch over his back. The entire time we walked, I patted his neck and praised the heck out of him. We moved on to leg yields and voltes in the corners with a ten-meter circle at B. When he finally seemed as relaxed as he was going to get, I asked for a halt and got off.
I popped up on Speedy for the next 45 minutes. We did some work in the arena, and then we did a walk around the neighborhood. I'm still just riding bareback in the halter, but I can't tell you how proud I am of that horse. He hasn't been allowed to trot or canter for almost three months (no turn out even), but he's still willing to work in just a halter.
You should see his rein back! We've been working on this for a while since it's a good exercise to do while bareback, and it doesn't require any twisting on the front end. He's to the point where I can ask for one backward step with just a tap of my calf. He stops and waits for me to ask for the next backward step with my other calf. I do nothing with my hands except to say no forward movement. And after the first step, there is slack in the contact.
I put Speedy away and re-saddled Sydney. He was quite surprised, but also in a much better frame of mind. For this ride, I had something to work with. I was able to ask for walk, trot, and canter without that feeling that I was on a rocket. We didn't have any spectacular moments, but at least we were able to work on our right lead canter without the duck and whirl of just a few months ago.
I recently read an article* about the rider who does nothing for fear of interfering with her horse. I think I am guilty of that sometimes. I may not be doing anything to "hurt" my horse, but I am certainly not helping him to be balanced. While I was riding, I kept this in mind. That's why I got on him the second time; I wanted to help him. Rather than just riding through the tension, I worked diligently to help him relax his muscles and to let go. By the end of our ride, he was looser and more balanced.
I am going to keep this in mind for a while. With all of the other things running through my mind while I ride, I am going to keep asking myself if I am helping him to achieve a healthier weight carriage or am I just being a passive rider. Hopefully it will be the former!
* I keep meaning to share this site. Horse Listening is a really good blog with gentle lessons on what we all do incorrectly, but it comes with real solutions and tips that you can try today.