Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bareback Milestones: Snow, Ground Poles, and a Spook

Those of you who live in the Northeast may be familiar with Winter Storm Iola, a storm threatening to bring rain, sleet, and snow to portions of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.  Where I live in Virginia typically tends to get more rain than snow, except in a handful of memorable cases over the past 13 years that I've lived here, so I wasn't expecting much.  However, I was hoping to get a ride in last night because I absolutely missed my Thursday night planned ride (when it was reasonably nice out) due to inspiration striking for some scrapbooking I was working on.  I realize that sounds a bit feeble, but it has been almost a year since I have been inspired to do a legitimate scrapbook layout (because it is impossible for me to feel creative while a two-year old is "helping" me) and I have a lot of photos of my daughter that need homes.  So I wanted to take advantage of my motivation.

That meant I was a bit anxious to discover that some nasty storm was moving into the area on Friday evening.  But, as luck would have it, my husband got home from work early, and I was on the road by 3:25, hopeful that I would get a ride in before the estimated start time of 6 pm for the bad weather.  Five minutes later, as the snow started to come down, my hope of riding was diminished somewhat, especially because I needed to stop by the feed store before I could go out to the barn.  (Nimo would absolutely not have accepted my reasoning of needing to ride before the storm got bad as an acceptable excuse for not having any food the next day.)

The snow kept getting worse and by the time I was done at the feed store, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be riding.  That irritated me because I could have ridden the day before and didn't and because there was a chance I wouldn't be able to ride on Saturday due to bad weather or the aftermath thereof, and I'm really trying to get us started back into a legitimate conditioning program so we have a hope of going to the Foxcatcher 25 ride in Maryland on the second weekend in April.  I tried to console myself by thinking about the things I could do instead of riding, like trimming Nimo's feet, but it really wasn't helping.

When I got to the barn, I encountered a couple of chatty people, which was OK.  I'm often out at the barn in the evenings when no one else is (I've never figured out how people with day jobs can get out to the barn and have their horses ridden by 5 or 6, but somehow they do), so I wasn't opposed to having conversations with adults that involved things other than work or kids.

Anyway, after my chatting was done, I was left with a question - to ride or not to ride.  The snow was still coming down, but it seemed a little less intense and it had changed from fluffy snowflakes to bits of ice, and I finally decided to do a shorter bareback ride.  I figured it was a nice compromise.  Nimo wouldn't get as hard of a workout as if I rode under saddle, but that was actually a good thing because he had to be out in the storm all night and I wasn't planning on blanketing him, so I wanted to make sure he didn't get even the slightest bit sweaty.  But we would still get some work in and I'd get a chance to work on my bareback skills while keeping my legs a little warmer:)

I put the bareback pad on, bridled him, and took Nimo out into the snow to the arena.  By this time, it was about 5:30 and the light was fading, so I turned on the lights (this will be important later).  At this point, I wasn't convinced that riding was the brightest idea, but the footing seemed good because the temperature was hovering right above freezing, so it wasn't icy or frozen.  And honestly, 33 degrees is warmer than it is on a lot of nights when I go out to the barn, so the cold wasn't an issue.

We started out with just walking around the arena to warm up while I thought of a plan for my ride.  I decided that I wanted to do two things:  work on using the lightest aids possible to achieve whatever it was I was asking for and do some lateral work.  Then I added a third thing because I realized someone had set up three ground poles for trot work.  I still feel uncomfortable with trotting bareback, not because Nimo misbehaves, but because his trot is really not that easy to sit.  Contrary to popular belief by non-Friesian owners, Friesians are not gaited and those bred like Nimo (more of the carriage-style with upright shoulders and steep hip angles) have a lot of motion to their gaits.

However, sitting the trot under saddle has become easier to do since our Fort Valley ride last October.  I spent a lot of time in a two-point position during that ride, and I have come to believe that being able to do a two-point position is remarkably like sitting the trot.  Your body is in a different position, but to do either well, you must be able to absorb the horse's motion through your body.  One method of teaching sitting trot in dressage involves putting the student on a school master type horse and than basically just trotting until the student is so exhausted that her body finally relaxes enough to sit the trot properly.  That method is not available to me (and it sounds about as appealing as cleaning a truck stop men's bathroom), so I've been working on it in shorter doses.  Anyway, all of that explanation is for me to get to the point that trotting over ground poles is a little intimidating for me, but I felt ready to try.

The worst thing that could happen is that I would fall off, and I have to admit that while I have spent the last many, many, many years of my life being afraid of falling off (I've had several nasty falls in my life as I'm sure most regular riders have, and I've developed an aversion to things like not being able to walk properly for two weeks, dislocating my shoulder, and being run over), that fear has recently diminished quite a bit.  I don't really know why, but the idea of falling off just isn't so scary anymore.  It's not that I want to fall off, and I'm certain that it will hurt regardless of how gracefully or gently I fall, but somehow the absolute terror of falling off is gone.  And that has really opened me up to feeling more confident in the saddle and being willing to try new things.  (I do still imagine that somehow I will fall off and be impaled on a tree - I can't explain where this idea came from - maybe too many Dracula movies?)

With my agenda in mind, I asked Nimo to start doing circles around the arena using the jumps that were set up as center points.  I did not pick up the reins or make any contact with Nimo's nose, though (I'm still riding in a hackamore), because I wanted to use only my body and legs, just to see how we did.  I think the majority of the circles were actually pretty decent, although we definitely had a couple that involved a total collapse of the inside shoulder.  But that happens when I'm riding on contact too, because if I lose focus on a movement for even a nano-second, Nimo interprets that as time to take a break and taking a break apparently involves a complete dysfunction of his body.  All in all, I was happy with that work, but I want to continue it to see if we can get all of our circles to be good.

Then I had Nimo trot for a bit while I worked on relaxing my body and feeling the movement.  And that was when he spooked.  I'm not sure if anyone else's horse does this, but Nimo can be a little spooky in the arena at night.  It's possible the spookiness is related to the bright lights of the arena contrasting with the pitch black of the outside of the arena.  I think I remember reading somewhere that while horses can often see better than people in the dark, their eyes don't adjust as quickly to drastic changes in light.  Anyway, the spook wasn't a big one, but we were trotting and he took a couple of big steps straight to the side.  And I stayed on.  As in, I didn't fall off.  I did lose my balance a little, but I would have probably had the same experience in a saddle, with the exception that stirrups would have helped a little.  WhooHoo!

I felt so brave after not falling off that I decided to dive right in to trotting the poles.  I should note that I walked Nimo through the poles a couple of times while we were warming up just because otherwise he probably would have tried to walk through them the first time I asked him to trot over them anyway - he's a very cautious horse:)  So we headed for the poles and I asked Nimo to move out the same way I would under saddle and he just trotted over them like they were nothing.  And once again, I didn't fall off.  So we went over the poles several times at the trot, and Nimo never touched a single pole (sometimes he will get a little sloppy and not pick up his feet enough).  For some reason, I thought it would be harder to stay on over the ground poles, but there really was no difference in Nimo's movement.  The other thing that I realized is that we were doing a legitimate trot instead of the more anemic trot that I've asked for when I've been riding bareback in the past.  I have been so worried about Nimo's extravagant movement that I didn't want to risk falling off by asking him to do the same quality of trot I would expect under saddle.  But judging by the distance of the trot poles, he was trotting with a pretty good length to his stride in order to get through them without hitting them.  And that was the same trot I'd been riding the rest of the time, so I felt like that was a decent accomplishment for me.

Then we moved on to lateral work.  I've done a little leg-yielding while bareback in the past, but I've never done shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass.  What I really wanted to focus on was feeling my body while I was giving aids and doing as little as possible while still getting the movement.  I have to admit that the aids felt strange to me without a saddle and I struggled a little with getting them right.  In particular, the concept of weighting the stirrup was not even possible, so it forced me to think about how I used my seat and legs differently.  I ended up choosing the following sequence to get both of us really focused:  haunches-in as we came around the corner onto the long side of the arena for 5-6 strides, then carefully shifting the haunches so that Nimo was straight, walking straight for a few strides, then going into shoulder-in for 5-6 strides, then carefully shifting Nimo's shoulders so he was straight, walking straight for a few strides, then going back into haunches-in, then straight, and then shoulder-in one more time.  I also stayed on the inside track of the arena (about 3 feet off the rail for non-dressage people) so that I was sure it was my aids and not the rail that generated the movements.

Next we moved on to half-pass.  At this point I choose an exercise from Jane Savoie's Happy Horse program.  She suggests starting across the diagonal of the arena, then going into half-pass, then going straight on the diagonal, then going in to half-pass in the other direction, and then going straight again.  The objective is to keep the horse's shoulders on the diagonal at all times while shifting only his haunches (for non-dressage people:  half-pass is basically haunches-in on the diagonal).  I've done the exercise under saddle before and it is always challenging, but the first time I tried it bareback, it was a complete disaster with no bend for the half-pass and crazy weaving all over the arena.  The second time, though, we got our act together, and it went pretty well.  Nimo didn't have quite as much bend as I would have liked, but his shoulders stayed where they were supposed to, which was the most important thing about the exercise.

I should note that I take frequent breaks of walking on a loose rein with Nimo when I do lateral work with him.  I usually don't do more than 5 minutes worth of work without taking a break and sometimes I will let him stretch as often as every minute.  That does three things:  first, it gives him a physical break because holding a frame and using himself for correct lateral work is challenging for his muscles; second, it gives him a mental break from listening to me, which he does very well as long as I am focused too; and third, it gives me a chance to evaluate the effectiveness of the exercise.  What I mean by that last one is that if the work was done correctly, Nimo's walk on a loose rein will be more forward and he'll stretch his neck forward and down a little while moving actively through his hind quarters.  If he just collapses or slowly wanders around, I'll know we need to go back to that movement, maybe after an energizing trot, and try again.

Last night's work went really well, and I decided to tack on one last exercise before cooling down - the reinback.  You may remember from my last post that I want to start working more diligently on improving Nimo's reinback.  We had some success during our lesson, but I wanted to see how we would do without a saddle and also just to reinforce the work.  We won't get any better unless we practice:)  Anyway, the first time I asked him, we had the same issues as before - resistance, crookedness, and lack of diagonal footfall.  Then I remembered I was supposed to be using light aids (I have a tendency to escalate the pressure of my aids when Nimo resists) and I realized (light bulb!) that maybe one reason Nimo was having trouble with backing up is because he is so careful about where he puts his feet.  He absolutely refuses to back off any trailer (even one with a ramp).  I've worked on it intermittently for years, but I've concluded that unless Mark Rashid personally comes to work with him on it, I'm just going to have to live with it.  And to be honest, I don't really blame Nimo for not wanting to back off a trailer.  I've seen more than one serious injury due to a horse backing off a trailer and slipping, so having him turn around and walk off is really the safest way to go.

But back to the reinback.  After our initial mess of a movement, I asked Nimo to trot forward and halt.  Then I waited a second, took a deep breath, leaned slightly forward and asked him to back.  This time, when he initially resisted, I lightened my rein aids and tried to relax.  And that did the trick.  When he didn't feel trapped by the pressure on his face, he stopped feeling so panicked about backing up, at least that is what I think is likely.  I don't think he had good diagonal movement, but he did back straight for several steps, and I called it a night.  I can see the reinback is just going to be something we'll have to work on over time, but I think the combination of setting him up properly (an active trot-to-halt helps keep his hind legs engaged), not using so much pressure on his face, and practice will eventually do the trick.

So my simple little bareback ride actually yielded a lot of positive results.  We only worked for about 40 minutes (my typical dressage schooling sessions are about an hour and 15 minutes), Nimo wasn't sweaty, and I had a couple of breakthrough moments.  Also, there was ice building up on the bareback pad, so I figured that was a sign that we were done for the night:)

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