This week I had another lesson on Little Joe (21 degrees this week – positively balmy!). It felt like our best ride so far, in terms of making a connection and building our relationship. Joe is really starting to accept the bit, and will even soften and bend through the corners…sometimes. He is still lacking a lot of confidence about going over trot poles, though he’s getting much better. Only one refusal this week, and after we worked through it together he was much more confident and smooth – even over a cavaletti!
Working with Joe is great because we always make improvements. We never have a perfect ride (far, far from it), but every lesson brings new learnings and definite progress. It’s pretty cool.
What we’re really working on is balance. Joe tends to throw his shoulder into the center of the arena, or his ribcage, or his hip…or all three. We have done many circles to get a bend in the corners, and we still have a long way to go. It’s interesting to ride Joe because I really have to think about what he needs from me to balance himself. Does he need to lift his shoulder? Straighten his hip? Lengthen the stride, or shorten it? Even better questions are: does he need support from the inside leg, the outside leg, or some combination? Does he need an opening inside rein, or one that asks him to lift his front end? Am I getting in his way – or, alternatively, am I not doing enough to support him?
It’s a delicate balance. And it’s especially so when we come up to ground poles or cavalettis. Joe is learning to be more sure-footed, figuring out his striding as we approach an “obstacle.” At this point, I would simply be getting in his way by trying to adjust his stride, but he also needs help to stay straight and between the aids.
Sometimes, the sheer amount of information that riders have to take in, process, then act on appropriately and immediately…well, it just blows my mind.
Anyway, moving on.
If you’re trying to work on your horse’s balance, I have a good exercise for you. It’s a serpentine. But this is no ordinary serpentine. Here’s how you do it: set up two rows of cones just off the rail, so you end up with parallel lines about 4-5 large paces apart. You can choose the distance between each set of two; I recommend starting with them further apart so your loops are wider, then moving them closer together for tighter turns. Joe and I mostly worked with the cones about 15 feet apart or so. The turns were quite tight. Then, you weave through the cones. The double row of cones allows you to do this exercise from both directions, as well as keeping your serpentine loops a consistent size.
You might be thinking, “Wow, that seems really easy!” Don’t be fooled! Doing this at the trot is tough, especially when the loops are tight. For me, this exercise really allowed me to feel when Joe was dropping his shoulder or swinging his hips around. It is a great exercise for working on getting a good bend.
Another thing that Leanne and I discussed this week was how to use your leg properly. A lot of people – myself included – use their heel and calf by lifting up, which drives your opposite seat bone into the saddle (and consequently, your horse’s back). This is counter-productive. Instead, I have to focus on stretching my leg down and back, while using the entire inside length of my leg to squeeze while opening the opposite leg so that I’m inviting the movement away from my aid. Oof. It’s really hard. But if it easy, it wouldn’t be fun! (Right?)
All in all, I’m really happy with the progress that Joe and I are making together, especially considering we’ve hardly been able to ride consistently. I think we’ll continue making strides, because, as I’ve said aloud in nearly every lesson, “I’m here for you, Little Joe.” And I think he’s starting to want to be there for me, too.* And that’s really what riding is all about.
*Knock on wood.