14.09.27: Straight Forward

Our lesson arrived bright and early and so I headed out into dawn to get Storm. He didn't want to come up out of the pasture for me calling, so I had to make the hike through the barren pasture to get him. When I got down into the bottom, he even gave me a little trouble catching him. It wasn't like him, but sometimes those moments come right before great moments. We headed back up to the barn with no trouble. As I was bringing him in through the gate, Kirsten came around the corner of the barn and he spooked right over my head as he spun around. He calmed right down after that, and so I fed him and set to work getting him tacked up.  By the time he finished eating he was mostly brushed and ready for the saddle. Kirsten and I chatted while we got ready, and he stood very nicely for the most part as I worked.
We headed out of the barn, and he gave me a little trouble stopping as we began to walk, but then he quickly followed. We began with the backing exercise, and quietly made one lap in each direction and were ready to move on to the next thing. Kirsten was really pleased with how he looked while he was backing up, which just confirmed it for me that he was doing very well. We got started on the long reins, and I immediately started asking questions about the new techniques that she was teaching yesterday during the lessons.
Watching Ellen and Diane's lessons was extremely informative to see her teaching this new technique. The focus was now on the rein contact, and the quality of it in connection with the horse's mouth. She encouraged them to take up more contact than we had been using, and along with that, refine the straightness of the horse's head and neck. Through our seat, we had always been working on the straightness of the pelvis and spine through the back. But a rein contact that isn't connected enough allows the head and neck to remain wiggly despite the straightness in the spine through the back. In questioning Kirsten about the change of focus, she explained that she was finding that many of her students were just not able to achieve the consistency that they should have at this point in time. She's been working with the group here for over 7 years, and many of us have been taking lessons with the same horse for that entire length of time. So the question became why are our horses still only able to hold their self carriage for a few steps at a time? She was working with a particularly challenging horse, and attempting to describe to another student how she was riding, when it clicked that she was also maintaining the straightness through the neck with the rein contact. Not only was she maintaining straightness, but she realized that she was simply watching the back of the horse's head and making sure that she couldn't see any of either eye or nostril while she worked. She connected that being able to watch the visual of the back of the horse's head gave the rider something completely concrete to know for sure if the horse was in the correct position. It also gives clearer feedback through the reins when one rein is heavier because the horses head will be tipped in one direction or the other visually.
I did have to laugh when she talked about watching the back of the horse's head. I never really thought that horses had a back of their head. They have a front, and underneath, but behind their ears is their neck and poll. But that's as close to the back of their head as it comes!
Back in my lesson, I began with changing the rein contact on the long reins and taking more of a feel. I worked hard to be as precise as possible when pulled or put slack in the outside rein. It wasn't as simple as watching the back of his head since I wasn't behind him (and on top), but the feel was the same. He settled into the work quickly, and was really shifting some things around in his shoulders and front end. It didn't take long before he was ready to ride.
I climbed up, and we got started working to the right. I immediately felt the difference in his movements as I changed how I worked with the reins. I suddenly had the feel of a complete unit working around the round pen. I could feel that he was straight and that his front leg was reaching around the circle instead of feeling that he was bending around the circle. He was literally "straight on the circle." I had the fear that my left foot was going to scrape the fence because we were pushing that far out, but all it took was an adjustment to the "rudder" to guide his hind end more to the inside and swing the front end around more. The simple adjustment really locked in the whole horse, I could feel everything more clearly and felt as if I were steering the boat instead of pushing a wet noodle through water.
We changed to the left, and the feeling remained the same, it was as if we were gliding along as one complete unit with no wiggles in between. He was wobblier to the left, but I could feel his weight shifts through the middle much easier. I could also feel how much it was helping his left shoulder to open up since he tends to hold it in and over use it. He began tossing his head and shaking it every few steps. Kirsten noted that it was due to how much he was opening up on that front leg. The change was happening so rapidly that he was getting a little agitated from it. I could feel his anxiety mounting from it, and that was getting me concerned. She suggested that we switch back to the right to give him a break and go back to doing something he could be more successful at. The change was so dramatic that he was still shaking his head to the right, too. She suggested that we simply halt to give him a break. It worked like a charm. I loosened the reins, but didn't drop the contact, and allowed him to stand for a moment. By this time Holly and Beth were getting themselves ready for their lesson, and so he attempted to get distracted. I simply kept asking him to keep his head and neck perfectly straight even as we stood there waiting. Kirsten and I talked over a few more things to help me get clearer on some ideas and concepts, and in that time Storm simply calmed down. We picked up the walk again for a short time and when he got a little agitated again, we stopped and waited. At that point both he and I were done!
I slid down, and Kirsten took a bathroom break before heading down to work with Holly and Beth. I decided that since he was in such a good frame of mind, we would go down to the arena and spend a few minutes working on the long reins just to spend a little time working down there in a good environment where there were other horses working. He walked down to the arena without bothering about much of anything. He stopped once, and I gave him a second before we continued on again. We got to the arena, and I set him back up on the long lines, and we went to work, without so much as batting an eye. Its been a year since he had been down to the arena, and he was finally ready to start working there. We spent a few minutes working on the long reins, but I knew that he had worked hard, so we didn't spend a lot of time there. I was proud of him for how much effort he put in, and how calmly he handled everything. He snorted a bit at Holly and Beth's trailer as we walked back up the hill, but he walked calmly the whole way again.