Monday, May 20, 2019

Science of Motion Clinic April 2019

I signed up for two sessions at this spring's Science of Motion clinic with Jean Luc Cornille instead of my usual one session partly because I wasn't planning on going to any endurance rides (so I could justify the extra expense to myself) and partly because I wanted to see if having two sessions improved the experience.  I have enjoyed my sessions with Jean Luc in the past, but it's hard to recalibrate to a new instructor in 45 minutes, and I thought having a second session would give me more time to get used to his teaching style.

I had also originally been hoping that we would be able to do impressive things like piaffe and passage, but our struggle with Nimo's left hind leg meant that we weren't as prepared to engage in that level of collection.  And I was kind of bummed about that.  In fact, I was kind of bummed about my riding in general.  Something didn't feel right and I couldn't put my finger on it.

But, I'd signed up for the clinic, and I'd told my instructor I would be happy to take the first session of the day on both days of the clinic.  Apparently, it is hard to find people willing to ride in that spot, probably because it means they have to get up early in the morning.  But I decided that the sacrifice of sleep was worth the ability to warm up without another rider in the ring (I always worry that I will get in the way of the lesson).  And I would have most of the day left after my ride, so I could audit the remaining clinic or get other stuff done.  (As it turned out, I would need to get other stuff done, but more about that later.)

I hadn't really thought through exactly how early I would need to get up, though, until the day before the clinic, when I realized I would need to be up at 4:15 am.  I mentally kicked myself a few times and then resigned myself to my fate.

I don't really have a clear memories of that morning because I was in a bit of a fog, but apparently I managed to get up on time, get out to the barn on time, and even get Nimo properly groomed and braided.  I had spent the better part of the previous week body clipping him, because the amount of filth in his remaining winter coat was becoming too much for me to bear.  He was shedding out, but it wasn't fast enough, and extremely warm evenings were predicted for the foreseeable future, so I decided to shave off all his hair except on his lower legs.  I even gave him a full bath and detangled his mane and tail, which had begun to resemble rats' nests.  Filthy, uninhabitable rats' nests...

I made it to the clinic location with plenty of time to spare.  That meant I could take my time getting Nimo saddled and hopefully reduce the nervousness that I always seem to develop before clinics.  I'm not sure why I get nervous.  I've ridden with Jean Luc before and he is a very easy man to work with.  The venue is easy to get around and very quiet.  But I guess I worry that I won't represent myself or my horse or my instructor very well.

Anyway, I headed over to the arena to warm up for a few minutes before my ride time and I realized that the extreme wind that we were experiencing that morning was making enough noise that Nimo was pretty distracted and even worse, tense.  I tried to keep him as calm as I could, but there was no doubt that we would have to spend a significant time working with him just on focusing on the ride instead of the wind.

Jean Luc watched us walk around for a few minutes and I also asked Nimo to trot a little.  (I didn't even try for canter because I'm not suicidal...)  Then he came over and talked to me for a bit.  I don't remember everything he said, but one of the things he did was raise his index finger and ask me to place one of my fingers against it, applying just enough pressure to keep the fingers connected.  Then he proceeded to increase and decrease the tone in various parts of his body, and he asked me what I felt.

It was kind of an amazing little exercise.  I could absolutely tell just with my finger when his body was toned and balanced versus when it wasn't, even though someone just watching us would not have seen any obvious changes in his body.  The point of the exercise was to illustrate just how nuanced the connection between a horse and rider can be.  If I could feel Jean Luc's body changing through a single finger, then imagine what my horse was feeling through my hands, seat, and legs!  It was a pretty meaningful exercise for me, and it reminded me a bit of some of the work that Mark Rashid does with his clinics.  Horses are incredibly sensitive and have the ability to perceive far more than we give them credit for.

Nimo was having a tough time bending through his thoracic area (not uncommon for Nimo or most horses, really), so Jean Luc asked me to start by putting Nimo on a small circle (probably a 10 m diameter or even a bit smaller) and asking for counter bend.  I'm really not sure why it is referred to as counter bend, because the focus is really on the flexing the horse's poll slightly to the outside of the circle rather than trying to create a bend through the body, but it has always been an effective tool for Nimo, even before I started working on Science of Motion techniques.

Essentially, the counter bend creates a problem (i.e., the horse is not bending on the circle) that needs a solution (i.e. the horse needs to bend on the circle).  It's kind of a circular logic (pun intended! ha,ha!), but it definitely seems to help Nimo.  We worked on the counter bend for a while, maybe 10 minutes, and once I had gained more influence over Nimo's body and he was really tuned in to me, Jean Luc asked me to switch to the correct bend on the circle.  Once we had correct bend on the circle, Jean Luc asked me to use a large pirouette (basically a half-pass on this small circle that we were working on).  The pirouette was intended to give Nimo the opportunity to really bend through his thoracic area, which would allow him to create the correct coordination and balance for his body.

When Jean Luc thought we'd achieved good results, he asked me to trot Nimo.  We struggled with that part a bit because Nimo kept wanting to canter.  He would trot a few strides then canter a couple of strides, then trot, then canter, etc.  I knew exactly why we were having that issue, though.  I have been trying to retrain Nimo that his cue for canter is my inside leg instead of my outside leg going back because moving my outside leg affects my balance in the saddle.  But for this exercise, I was using my inside leg a lot as a point of reference for Nimo to use for where he needed to bend.  He was probably a bit confused.

We did get some nice trot work, though, and then switched to going in the other direction.  I was kind of worried about that, because we'd started going to the right, which is definitely an easier direction for Nimo.  And while I thought I'd resolved the issue Nimo had been having with his left hind, I kind of wondered if it might manifest itself again.  But Nimo actually picked up the exercises to the left much more quickly to the left than he had the right.  Our 45 minute session ended too soon, though, and I was glad I had signed up for a second session.

I ended up only staying for a few minutes after our ride.  Late one night about 3 weeks before the clinic, I got the brilliant idea that planting an Osage orange tree hedge out at our acreage would be a great idea, and I was enabled by the ease of ordering 300 bare root trees online at about 11 pm.  I hadn't been sure when the trees would arrive from the nursery, but it turned out that they came the day before the clinic and both the box and the instructions proclaimed in bold letters that the trees "must be planted IMMEDIATELY!!!"  So, I had my work cut out for me to try to get to the clinic and figure out how to get 300 trees planted quickly.  (I'll probably write another post about how that worked out, because it isn't as easy as it sounds...)

The next day, I slept in until 4:30 am (oh, the luxury!) and still managed to get Nimo groomed and braided and tacked up well before our ride time of 8:30.

I still identify as an endurance rider and I love that we can use an English-style saddle with a western bridle:)
Everything, including the wind, was quiet that morning, and I kind of wondered if I might be the only one attending the clinic.  In fact, Jean Luc got there before my instructor, who had organized the clinic.  I was warming up before he arrived, and he gave me a few more minutes before he started our lesson.  He watched me as I tried to recreate the walking pirouette from the day before, along with a trot transition.  I could tell it wasn't quite right yet, and Jean Luc agreed with my assessment, so we went back to work.

We went straight to working on the pirouette without first going through the counter bend and circle exercises.  I spent my time trying to make subtle adjustments in my body based on the feedback Jean Luc was giving me.  Which was mostly letting me know when each leg was connecting with the ground and when I lost the bend.

After a few minutes of working, Jean Luc had me take a break.   (That is kind of normal for him, I think.  He likes to observe and provide some feedback and then he gives what I think of as a mini-lecture related to what he sees.)   I can't remember exactly what he said, because he said one thing that sort of took my breath away, like he could see into my head.  It was something along the lines of, "You have to ride with your heart."

You may remember that I have been struggling a bit with a feeling of "something just isn't right."  well, when I heard the word "heart," I realized the thing that wasn't right was that my heart wasn't in my riding.  I was trying to address problems.  I was analyzing my position and Nimo's movement.  But I wasn't feeling anything except negative feelings like frustration and irritation and aggravation and sadness and regret and even anger.  I wasn't enjoying my rides.  I was just going through the motions.

Jean Luc followed up his little bombshell with a pretty technical discussion of how the pirouette works as a tool to help horses with their balance and coordination.  I really don't remember the specifics because he was throwing a lot of numbers and theory at me, but what I understood is that the pirouette is an incredibly complex exercise.  It requires a whole bunch of body parts to basically work together perfectly, both for the horse and the rider.  And the horse and the rider have to match each other's movement too.  By the time he was done explaining how everything could go wrong, I was feeling ready to throw myself and Nimo a party for still being upright, much less accomplishing a few steps of correct pirouette.

And then he pointed out how it can take a really long time to achieve consistently correct balance and coordination.  It isn't something that can be accomplished in days or weeks or months.  It takes years and years.  In our culture in the U.S., I think immediate gratification has become so common in the horse world.  I mean, if you have enough money, you can buy a "made" horse.  Or you can pay a trainer to make the horse for you, and all you have to do is get on and ride and show and collect your ribbons.  Very few people really put in the sweat and blood and tears to go from a beginner horse to a finished one (assuming a horse is ever really finished).  And we expect horses to just know things.  We expect even beginner level horses to be able to change leads over fences.  We expect 3-year-old horses to go to horse shows with lots of noise and distractions and perform at their best.  We expect young horses to go out on rugged trails and trot and canter over hills and rocks and streams.

I know very few riders who really put in the effort to educate themselves or their horses.  In fact, just a few days ago, I was just talking to a rider whose horse is jumping 3-foot fences.  She was wondering if maybe she should try to do some flat work with him instead of jumping all the time, but she found the flatwork unpleasant because the horse is "lazy" and she doesn't enjoy constantly kicking him around the arena.  I tried to gently point out that doing the flatwork on a regular basis with a good instructor might actually help the horse to not feel lazy and help the work feel more pleasant, but I suspect the rider will continue to simply jump her horse.  After all, why would she do the flat work when her horse is athletic enough on his own to jump 3-foot fences and win blue ribbons for her?

I'm not sure if Jean Luc knew how much his talk with me had affected me, but hearing the idea about riding with my heart as well as the much-needed reminder that I am not in this for immediate gratification took up a huge part of my brain not just for the remainder of our lesson, but for weeks afterward.

We went back to working on the pirouette and Jean Luc said he would tell me when he thought I was "in the zone."  That meant that Nimo was moving really well and it would be appropriate for me to ask for trot.  However, the decision to ask for trot would be mine.  He explained that I could feel far better than he could see if Nimo was ready for trot.  So he would let me know when the conditions looked right, but I needed to use my own feelings (my heart, if you will) to decide if we should keep walking or move into trot.

Nimo and I are working on bend

So we practiced it over and over.  Nimo was still having trouble maintaining trot on the circle, though.  He continued to substitute canter strides.  Jean Luc then reminded me that if we try something and it isn't working after a concerted effort, that the best thing to do is to try something else.  The point of riding that day wasn't do get Nimo to trot on a circle.  The point of riding was to get Nimo to trot with correct movement.  Whether we did it on a circle or a straight line or in some other way didn't matter.  He asked me to trot Nimo in shoulder-in using a sort of hexagon shape.  Basically, when the walk was correct, I would ask for trot straight ahead instead of on the circle but simultaneously ask for shoulder-in to help Nimo keep his balance.  Then after a short time going straight, I would ask for a quick, short turn and then go straight in shoulder-in again.

We worked on that exercise for awhile, and Nimo's trot really improved and we both started working well together.  Jean Luc then told me to just keep trotting straight (in shoulder-in) until I felt the movement start to deteriorate.  At that point, I should do a quick turn to rebalance and then continue in shoulder-in straight until Nimo needed rebalancing.

The more we did the exercise, the better we got.  We were able to trot for longer stretches without needing a turn for rebalancing and our hexagon turned into a square and then a triangle and then mostly straight lines.  We changed directions and got similar results.

I was putting in a pretty good effort at that point and was getting out-of-breath, so I was kind of thankful when our time was up.  But it was a good stopping point, too.  Nimo and I were working well together and the quality of his trot was really nice.  Jean Luc complimented me at the end of my lesson and said I was doing really well.  I don't think he would have said that if he didn't think it was true, and it was nice to hear.  It's also a credit to my instructor, who has been working with me and guiding me.  And it is especially a credit to Nimo, who is the poor soul who is having to work so hard to figure out how to change his movement and listen to me, even when I'm probably less than clear and he has no idea what the objective is.

So my lesson ended on a really great note.  I took Nimo back to the trailer and got him untacked and set up with a snack, while I headed back to the arena to watch the next rider.  I had to work on planting those dratted Osage orange trees later in the day, but I at least wanted to watch one other rider before I left.

The rider after me was a fellow In-Hand Therapy Course student, but newer to the program.  She was riding my instructor's horse, who is quite lovely and very experienced with SOM.  What was interesting to me was watching this rider's position.  She was still holding herself quite stiff and lacking in confidence, and the horse's movement reflected that.  I very much remember being in that phase myself, and it was a reminder about how far we've come in the past couple of years.  I also caught a glimpse of the rider after her (not an IHTC student), who was still following the methodology of using your body and hands to "follow the horse's movement."  I used to do that too.  I was struck by how obscene it looks to me know.  There is absolutely no reason to engage in that much movement on the back of your horse.  Good riders should look still and in harmony with their horses, not like they are taking an aerobics class.  But having been there myself, I understand that once you get used to riding like that, you don't even notice what you are doing and you may even think that you are being still.  Another reminder of how far we've come.

When I reflect on the clinic, I'm so glad that I rode in two sessions.  It was wonderful to have the time to work through the exercises at a pace that was right for us.  We never felt rushed, and I had enough time to repeat the process of getting it wrong and then getting it right over and over, which helped to develop muscle memory for both Nimo and me.  It was well worth my early mornings.

But I was still struggling with something.  After the clinic, I hardly rode, even though I couldn't stop thinking about the concept of "riding with my heart."  When I rode, nothing felt right to me.  The saddle felt wrong, my stirrups felt wrong, Nimo felt wrong.  There was no connection and I felt constantly out of balance.  I couldn't understand why I felt like that.  After all, I was riding in the same saddle and stirrup length as in the clinic.  Nimo was the same horse.  Why the disconnect?  I tried changing the saddle from the old Wintec endurance saddle back to my old dressage saddle, but it didn't help.  And I was faced with this overriding feeling that I didn't even want to ride.

Apparently one more thing needed to happen before I could figure out what was going on.  Stay tuned for what I eventually discovered...

Monday, May 13, 2019

Blue Ridge Hunt Club Bluebell Ride

The morning of Sunday, April 14 dawned with the cloudiness and grayness that typically precedes rain.  I was on the fence about how I felt about the rain.  I'd previously agreed to join a ride put on by the Blue Ridge Hunt Club.  My instructor rides with them on trail rides sometimes and she had tempted me into going on this ride with the promise of seeing a multitude of bluebells.  Early to mid-April is bluebell season in northern Virginia and many groups offer rides during that time through bluebell territory.  I've gone on a few over the years and they are beautiful.  But I don't enjoy group rides as much as I used to.  Much like with Judged Pleasure Rides, I have found that they aren't Nimo's strong suit.  He gets a bit to wound up and riding him is less of a pleasure and more of a brute force and battle of wits to keep him together mentally.

One could argue that if I simply did more group rides, he would likely learn how to behave and then I could enjoy them like everyone else does.  I have no doubt that is true, but I just don't find the effort worth the reward.  I'm not a huge fan of rides that are 4-5 miles anymore, unless it is part of a particular conditioning or training strategy.  If I have to spend hours driving my truck and trailer to get to a site, I kind of want to get in at least 8 miles and 10 would be better.  Nimo typically takes 2-3 miles to really get into his groove, and if we're only going 4-5 miles, it isn't really enough to make the time invested worth it.

But I thought that if my instructor was also riding, maybe Nimo would remember our trail lessons from last fall and sort of fall into correct behavior and movement out of habit.  So I agreed to go on the ride against my better judgment, but I wouldn't have been too disappointed if the event was called off for rain.

I spent much of Sunday morning obsessively checking the weather radar for the movement of the incoming storm that was predicted for Sunday late afternoon/evening.  As of the time I needed to leave to go to the barn, it looked like the rain would hold off.  So with a bit of dread, I headed out to the barn.

Despite the moody skies, the temperature was in the low 70s.  Nimo still had much of his winter coat, and I'd decided to do a trace clip to help keep him cooler.  I planned to get out to the barn early enough that I could do at least most of the clip before we left for the ride.  What I didn't plan on was Nimo being covered in mud about an inch thick.  It took me 45 minutes of dedicated scrubbing and scraping to get it off.  Which left me about 10 minutes to clip.  I trimmed a bit on his hind legs and the jugular area on his neck and called it good.  But I figured we would just be walking the whole ride anyway, so he probably wouldn't work up much of a sweat...

We would be riding out from private land with a distant view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Here is a picture of the view from the parking area:

I arrived with enough time to play around with Nimo's tack, which was a good thing.  I planned to ride in my "new" old Wintec endurance saddle for the second time, and I hadn't had a chance to figure out if the breast collar would work and I was also playing around with saddle pads.  I had only ridden in the saddle once during the previous week, so even the girth adjustment was still a bit unknown because I hadn't tested it on the trail.  (I am going to make a note here in case anyone reading this post is new to trail or endurance riding and has stumbled across my blog.  ALWAYS test your tack BEFORE you go out on group rides.  NEVER test new ideas at group rides or worse, at competitions.  That said, once you get some experience, you might be able to play fast and loose with these rules, but you do so at some risk.  It's important to remember that as you'll see later in my post, which like many could probably be called Yet Another Way in Which I Serve As an Example of What Not to Do.)

I already wrote in my last post that my current favorite set-up for saddle pads wasn't going to work with the Wintec.  I have been using a thin cotton pad topped with a Thinline half pad, which I really liked.  I liked being able to throw the cotton pads in the wash easily and the Thinline pad provided some extra cushion without affecting saddle fit too much.  But the panels of the Wintec were a bit too long for the Thinline.  I hadn't been riding in the saddle long enough to really know what I wanted to commit to in the long run, so I had grabbed a good-sized dressage pad that had been made for me years ago by Seams Right.  It was a double layer of thick cotton flannel, so thicker than a regular cotton pad, but thinner than my Thinline/cotton pad set-up.  With the saddle being quite old, I wasn't sure about the panels.  They felt OK to me, but I figured having a little extra padding couldn't hurt.

As it turned out, I discovered that the girth straps on the pad did not even remotely line up with the girth when I put the saddle on.  I had to play around with the position of the pad quite a bit to make sure it stayed under the saddle, had appropriate wither clearance, and still worked with the girth.  Thankfully, my girth has long elastic straps, so I was able to just squeeze the second elastic strap through the front of the girth strap on the pad, so everything would hopefully remain stable during the ride.

I had thought to take the snaps off of the all-purpose saddle I'd been using and clip them to a set of d-rings on the Wintec saddle.  That extra length was much-needed to get my breast collar to fit right.  Nimo's shoulders have gained muscle and even on the last hole, the breast collar is too tight without adding extra clips to get more length.  The breast collar seemed to fit reasonably well with the clips, so that part of my tack worked well.

Finally, I used our regular halter/bridle with a hackamore.  I had thought about using a snaffle bit, but Nimo tends to pull a lot on group rides because of his excitement and the thought of pulling on his mouth was too much for me.  I don't like pulling on his nose either, but I feel like the potential for damage is less.  (Not everyone would agree with me on that point, but I don't know that there are conclusive tests that show either a bit or hackamore is "better" from the standpoint of force.  Some horses seem to be able to handle more pressure on their noses while others handle it better on their mouths.  I would prefer not to use any kind of force on either area, but the practicality of it is that if you are going to ride with something on your horse's head, there are going to be times when you may need to use a lot of pressure to avoid a bad situation.)

I was ready a few minutes before the ride started, so I took the opportunity to walk Nimo around and hopefully gauge his mental state.  He was alert and ready to move out, but easily managed, so I crossed my fingers mentally that he would remain that way for the ride.  And then I saw how many people were going to be on the ride.  A lot.  Like probably more than 30.  When I've ridden with hunts before, the groups are typically split by how fast they want to go, so there aren't any more than 7-10 riders in a group.  But this group would not be split.  So much like the last group ride I went on, this would be a very large group.  Nimo really doesn't do well in very large groups.  It's too much like an endurance ride start, but without the option to move out and trot for a bit for him to burn off the extra energy and settle.  I resigned myself to an unpleasant ride.

We started off in hilly territory, and quickly got to a location with lots of bluebells.  I did manage to snag a picture while gritting my teeth and struggling with Nimo:

The terrain was beautiful, even in the gray weather.  Spring was definitely arriving, but I have to admit that I didn't get much of a chance to enjoy it.

Because we were riding through private land, we had to stop a lot to open and close gaits.  Please try to imagine 30 plus horses having to come to a halt every few minutes.  If your horse wants to stand still, that is probably not a big deal, but if your horse is mentally expecting to be moving out, it's tough.  Nimo did do a good job of staying put for the stops, though.  He at least remembered that he needs to eat when we stop, so the grass kept him entertained and gave both of us a break.

But while we were moving at a slow walk, life was difficult.  I had to use my whole body to keep him contained.  It was much like the first endurance ride I did at Fort Valley where he was so excited and desperate to keep up with all the other horses.  In this case, I think he probably just wanted to be closer to the front - we were riding near the back.  It wasn't until after the ride was over that it occurred to me that maybe if we'd been near the front, he would have been less anxious (note to self...).

So we struggled on as best as we could, and I tried to think of it as an opportunity to work on my balance and communication.  Unfortunately, at one point we all stopped and waited in a sort of enclosed area.  I never did figure out why, but our next step was to cross a stream.  The crossing involved a fairly steep and muddy bank and then a rocky, fast moving stream.  Coming out of the stream also involved a steep hop up a bank and then going through some pretty choppy mud before heading up a steep and muddy hill.  (Virginia has lots of mud in the spring and riding 30 horses through it does not improve the situation.)

Nimo was ramped up from waiting for several minutes and he was very frustrated by how long it took to get to the stream crossing.  Then I had to slow him down to give room to the horse in front of us.  By the time we got to the stream, he was ready to blow up.  And blow up is just what he did the second his feet were out of the water.  Using the momentum from the small jump up the bank of the stream, he started to canter.  But it was so muddy, and I was still holding him back, that his canter wasn't getting him very far, so he started bucking.  The bucking was not a surprise to me - I could feel it building - but I just didn't have a way to avoid it.  So I rode him through it.

One great way to test your tack set up is to ride a bucking horse while cantering through deep mud up a steep hill.  If you and the tack stay where they are supposed to, I think you can give yourself a huge congratulatory pat.  And when we got to the top of the hill, I mentally did just that.  All the tack was still on my horse and in order.  I was still on my horse with both stirrups.  I considered the saddle to be my favorite purchase ever at that point for being stable and helping me keep my balance.  (I suspect all the Science of Motion work may have contributed to my balance as well but a stable saddle and good breast collar go a long way toward keeping a person in the saddle!)

We proceeded on the trail with Nimo still feeling pretty fresh and shortly thereafter came to another stop.

My instructor snapped this photo.  The grin on my face is because I'm still alive.  But my face is all red from the exertion of holding Nimo together.  And you can see the lather building up on his shoulder by the breast collar.

We rode on for a bit more.  And it turned out that Nimo was not the worst behaved horse at the ride.  (In fact, I don't know that too many people knew we were having trouble.  I was able to keep Nimo fairly contained and we worked as much as possible on using a collected trot to help him release energy while still maintaining a slow pace.)  Another horse side-swiped Nimo from behind because he was really upset and spinning.  The group stopped again to allow the rider to get off and switch horses.

After we got going again, we stopped a couple of minutes later, and all I could think was, "What fresh hell is this?"  And that is when I saw what looked like a 2-foot coop jump at the front of a line of horses.  "Well, that's OK," I told myself.  "We'll just go around it."  Yeah, so after watching for a couple of minutes, I realized THIS WAS A JUMP WITH NO GO-AROUND.  I've never been on a ride, even a hunter pace or a hunt club trail ride, that forced riders to go over a jump with no option to go around.  It was not a big jump for most people, but it was set on a hill, so you jumped from up the hill down the hill over the jump.  Normally, Nimo wouldn't have even attempted it, but with so many horses in front of us and being excited, Nimo was desperate to get over it.  So, remember my goal to jump a two-foot jump with Nimo this year?  Well, this was the perfect opportunity to cross it off the list...assuming I didn't die in the attempt.

And believe me, I had a lot of time to look at the jump and develop about 71 different ideas about how this was all going to go wrong.  Nimo was too wound up to jump safely.  We've never jumped anything going downhill.  Also, Nimo does not jump two foot obstacles.

Here is the likely scenario that I imagined in my head.  Nimo would jump over the coop and then as he was landing, take advantage of the additional length in the reins and downhill slope to get in a really good buck and launch me to the next county.  Upon landing, about six of my bones would break, and I would have to be airlifted to the nearest hospital.

Here is what actually happened.  I made sure that I kept only the bare minimum of space between Nimo and the horse in front of us (having made sure that the horse in front of us was not bothered by horses behind her).  That strategy was intended to help him feel like he was keeping up with the group and not getting left behind.  As he went over the jump, I did not lean forward as much as I normally would have, and made sure that I maintained a good contact over the jump.  The second his front feet touched the ground, I sat up, engaged every muscle in my core, and dragged his head up so he couldn't buck.  I'm sure it did not look pretty, but we made it with no bucking or loss of balance, and I breathed in a sigh of relief.

From there we continued on, eventually getting to what looked like another stream crossing.  For whatever reason, everyone ahead of us was rushing down the hill, and keeping Nimo balanced and walking took every bit of strength I had.  And as we got to the bottom of the hill, I realized that the horses weren't crossing the stream, but trotting on what looked like 4 inches of ground between brush and the stream.  So basically, there was no margin of error.  If your horse slipped, you would fall over the stream bank into a rocky creek or if you tried to move inward, you would get hung up on brush.  And did I mention we were trotting?

I think I might have held my breath and closed my eyes while Nimo negotiated the trail at a fast trot with the surefootedness of a goat.  He was finally doing what he wanted to be doing!  We came up on a gravel road and took a hard right.  At that point, the whole group was still trotting.  I heard my instructor say something about this being the most beautiful section of the ride.  I will have to take her word for it because Nimo went into his super fast trot (my GPS says it was 14 mph) and we sped down the road.  Luckily, we only had to pass a couple of other horses and I made sure that they were not spooking or nervous about our passing, but I had to give Nimo the opportunity to burn off some energy.  The front half of the group was well ahead of us, so I let Nimo move out to catch up.  He was so happy!

We didn't get to trot for more than a few minutes, but it was enough so that afterward, Nimo was happy to settle, and we had a very nice ride for the rest of the ride.  Which was about a mile.

I was floored when my GPS indicated that our ride was 4.21 miles.  It had felt like about 10 miles and I was exhausted when we got back.

Nimo is still quite fresh and ready for more at the end of our ride!
Sometimes I really wish I had the kind of horse that could do whatever job I give him, whether it is to move out at an endurance ride, gather cattle, run barrels, collect in the arena, jump 3 feet, or saunter slowly through the Virginia hills in the company of 30-40 other horses.  Maybe he will be that horse some day, but he isn't now, and I think this bluebell ride will be my last group ride for a very long time.  I don't think there was much value in me forcing him with a lot of pressure to stay slow.  It is, in fact, the opposite of what I'm trying so hard to do, which is to be light and use the weight of the reins and my body to communicate.

We survived the ride, and I guess that is something.  My tack worked, and that is something else.  Nimo did do a great job of grazing whenever we stopped.  He also was able to work with me on collected trot for short sections of trail, which is not something he could have done even a few months ago.  So I don't want to say that it was all negative, but teaching Nimo how to handle group trail rides doesn't fit within my goals or his skill set right now.

If I'm really honest about what I want to do and blend that with what he seems happiest doing, I have to realize that putting him in a situation that looks like an endurance ride but isn't, is not the best way to proceed.  Yes, endurance horses (or any horse for that matter) need to be able to be rated.  They can't just go zooming all over the countryside, but no endurance horse is forced to walk for miles in a large group of horses without any opportunity to trot or pass.  It isn't something that would be part of a ride experience.  Although I think Nimo would have been happy to do just that if he'd had an opportunity to trot earlier in the ride.  Plus Nimo has demonstrated many times his skill on being passed on the trail during hunter paces.  He can handle competitions and being passed as long as he is given the opportunity to trot at least a little to expend some energy.  He just can't handle being at the back of a large group that moves slowly and stops a lot.  So the great thing about this ride is I think I finally have that hammered into my head.  We are still going to ride with other people sometimes, but not in a large group setting.  I am going to make sure that I do a better job at matching our rides to things that make sense for us to work on and that match our skill set and goals.  Assuming we live long enough to enjoy old age, maybe that will be the time for us to wander the hills of Virginia with a large group:)