Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Back to riding, sort of...

This week I was finally able to start riding again after a bit of a hiatus due to a few glitches in the schedule. Weather played a small part for a few of those days when we had thunderstorms but the hiatus from riding was due in part to JB having been on 10 days post surgery rest from his castration. With April, I have been limited to groundwork because a saddle simply hasn’t fit the poor girl. This week, JB has returned to work. He has healed well and the swelling is beginning to diminish. It has been nice to be back to riding him this week. As for April, well, what can I say , the poor girl was about to founder if she even looked at another blade of grass just a few weeks ago. Today, she is approx 65 lbs lighter and can no longer pack a gallon of water down the crease of her back . PROGRESS!!

but we still have a long way to go. ….

With the weight loss she has had so far, she has lost a majority of the fat pockets along her spine and around her shoulders but her neck is still cresty. We have been dry lotting her and limiting her to a small portion of grass hay twice a day. Enough to keep her intestines healthy and moving but not so much that she is gorging herself. For the first few days after she arrived turned her up her nose at the hay , because she had learned with the previous owner that if she held out long enough, he would feel sorry for her and turn her back out on pasture. Fortunate for her,(although she’s not convinced) I might just be a little more stubborn than her.

She is now at the point now that she could benefit from a little more exercise. Last night, I put my very wide western saddle on her that I used to use for a 16.3 hand bulky Thoroughbred. It wasn’t the most ideal fit, but fit well enough so that she was fairly comfortable while being worked for an hour session of walking and trotting.

We began on the ground , like I usually do with all horses before riding, with some lateral lungeing. Lateral lungeing is one of my key pre flight checks I use for every horse, prior to mounting. I find that it is more useful than simply lungeing a horse because it helps to engage their mind, and teach them a level of willingness to follow your guidance. It introduces the idea of following a direct rein. The goal of this exercise is to prepare the horse to willingly move around a circle with a bend, stop, change directions and move through these paces quietly and engaged. It is done in a halter with a 12’ or longer rope. I have found lateral lungeing to be a foundation to help develop softness and lateral flexion from head to tail. It teaches the disengagement of the hind end, which will come handy when /if you ever have a run away on your hands. I will try to explain the steps below but if you have attended or read up on any natural horsemanship trainer, most of them teach it. I apologize if it appears that I am reinventing the wheel. That is not my intention, just to explain how I do it and what I have found to work best for me.

I begin by asking April to move around me at a walk, quietly and relaxed with a bend from nose to tail. Bending for April is relative. She is limited in her flexibility at this point so we define success with a broad range As she worked around me to the right , counter clockwise, I walk in a smaller circle with her, my body quiet and relaxed. I am turned into her so I am watching the shoulder and neck area as I walk along. The lead rope should have slack in it ideally but if this is new the horse , it may take some time. As the horse bends and steps under and through with the inside leg and ‘gets” on a circle, the slack in the rope will come. An important thing to point out with this is how I am holding the rope. As she moves around me clockwise or to the right, I am holding the rope about halfway down the line with my right hand and the left hand has the tail of the rope. You’ll see why shortly. As she moves around me,I am using my right hand to direct her around me, to ask her to follow the rein. When you get to where the horse is moving around you quietly, the next thing to ask is for the stop and disengagement of the hind end in order to change direction. . In order to get April to stop, I reach forward with my left hand, now taking the rope where my right hand was previously (so your switching hands)and put a little squeeze or pressure on the rope in the direction of her right hip. She should stop and disengage her hind quarters to the right or to the outside of the circle you just had her on. My right hand is now at the end of the rope where my left hand previously was. I will be essentially turning April into me and the center of the circle I just had her working on.

As she turns and disengages her hind end, I make sure not to BACK UP TO GET OUT OF HER WAY! This is an easy mistake to make. It will feel like horse and human are crowding eachother and that’s okay. If she is too close in to me, and there doesn’t seem to be room for her to turn, she is going to have to rock back onto her haunches, lighten up the front end in order to reach out to the right with her right foot and come on through and change direction. This is a good thing because it will just help to teach her to engage her hind end that much more. I guarantee you, this will happen when you are first learning or teaching this to a new horse.
As I suspected, April didn’t know what to do because she was too close in to me. So, she did what any beginner will often do and kind of got stuck half way through the turn, not really understanding what I wanted from her. She is now at a stop looking at me and swishing her tail. She is partially facing me. Her head is pointing in the direction of my right shoulder and her hips are at an angle to me and outside of the circle she was working on.

What I want her to do is to step to her left with her hind end , this is the disengaging part, and then step to the right with her front right foot , and then walk out around me to the left, which is the change of direction part. To help her understand what I am after, (remember I now have the lead rope in my left hand as the direct rein) I ask with the left hand on the lead rope, using a gently bump bump out to the direction of the left. So my left arms is extended out and asking to the left. As I am doing that, instead of backing up out of her way to give her room to turn, I walk into her left shoulder while I swing the tail end of the rope with my right hand, in the direction of her shoulder. This is the pressure to move away from. April tried backing up because she didn’t understand that she was to follow the left lead (this is going to help once I am in the saddle with following the rein). That’s fine, I just stayed with her ( we ended up at the other end of the arena the first time I tried this with her) and I keep presenting and walking into that left shoulder. Eventually she figures it out that she has to rock back or even step back once and then rock back to give herself enough room to be able to then step through and go left. When she finally does, I praise her and let her relax . Now April is moving around me in a circle to the left in a walk.
I continue this change of direction repeatedly and work to keep it slow and calm , breaking it down step by step if needed. It’s important that I don’t rush April through this exercise as it will just build a brace in her and that is the oppositive of what I am after. Over time, as April understands this exercise, and can smoothly stop and change direction I will focus more on the bend. As she works around a circle, I will use the end of the rope or sometimes I prefer a dressage whip to touch her hip, asking her to move away from me while applying a little pressure on the lead rope. Often times, I will gently touch the horse as a cue at the rib cage with the dressage whip. When the horse offers a bend by flexing at the jaw and through the rib cage, I cease the cue.
Eventually ,when she gets this down better, I will add a longer lead rope so that I can add trotting in and even a canter.
Obviously, pictures of each step would probably help to better visualize this process but there are probably oodles of websites you could find it on.

Well this post got more lengthy than I had hoped so I didn’t get a chance to move onto how our actually riding session went. I will save that for another day I guess. I will say this. She is very very very very green!!! And for a rather over weight mare, she can be more flexible than one might imagine.!

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