For the past few weeks Drifter and I have been having our lessons on the lunge* line. I’d decided I wanted a chance to work without reins to look at my position, and thought it would be good to do some sitting trot without trying to steer at the same time. I’d not been offered lunge lessons before, but when I asked they agreed, albeit with a cautious “Is he OK on the lunge?” To which the answer is that he’s not going to rear, buck or go bonkers, and comes with reasonable voice control, but hasn’t really got the hang of what shape a circle is supposed to be.
The instructors and office manager seemed surprised that I wanted lunge lessons. I’m not sure why – they all know I have symmetry issues that I’m trying to improve and to me this seemed one of the most logical ways to look into them.
In the first lesson we just worked in walk and trot. Drifter was well-behaved in terms of speed and gait, but struggled with the circle concept, particularly on the troublesome right rein, and put some corners into the circles, which were pretty unsettling for me, but I sat through them OK. At first we just worked on rising trot (with stirrups), getting in balance with the horse and getting my hips and shoulders following him. This I found quite difficult, but then, the reason we were doing this was because I thought things weren’t right, so I was glad to uncover what I’m struggling with. By the end of the lesson we took my stirrups away and did some work on sitting trot, which went better than I’d expected, but mostly involved me holding onto the saddle to pull myself into it. I learnt that my right hip isn’t as mobile as it needs to be and is in the habit of doing very little.
Following that first lesson I had a reasonable amount of muscle soreness, which in itself was a useful learning tool. When I rode on my own in the days following the lesson I could feel when I was turning correctly with him (i.e. things were sore) and when I was slipping into old habits (couldn’t feel anything).
In the second lesson we began with a quick discussion of the bit (at this point I was using the borrowed bit with the full cheeks) and for some reason that ended with the instructor tightening the girth and not me. I hopped on and we started with some rising trot with stirrups. I got into balance on each rein much more quickly and easily than I had in the previous lesson. As we returned to walk on the right rein I noticed the saddle had slid to the outside a bit. “The saddle’s slipped,” I called to the instructor, to signal I wasn’t ready for another go, then, “The saddle’s going… the saddle’s going … the rider’s going!” During the last word gravity had taken over and I was falling through the air. The ground met me kindly and I rolled and stood almost before I’d finished speaking.
One the one hand I know to always check my own girth, but on the other hand the instructors have been doing girths up for me since my first lesson so it never occurred to me there’d be a problem. We sorted out the saddle (by now worn fetchingly on the side of my horse) again with her doing it up (this time because I was a little edgy with adrenaline and couldn’t get a good grip on the leather) and she gave me a leg up. They like to get people back in the saddle as soon as possible after a fall. Although I was completely uninjured I’ve always thought I’d like a little breather first, but there we are. So I was back on board and the instructor told me the girth was tight this time. Knowing my horse and my tack, I asked which holes the girth was on. She replied “1 and 3.” I’m glad I asked because that would have had me on the floor again!** Once we’d tightened the girth again and got back into the lesson we did a little canter with stirrups on the left rein but couldn’t get him to strike off on the right leg on the right rein, which was quite disappointing because we’d assumed on the lunge he’d go on the right leg OK, but we didn’t have any time left to keep trying.
That was the lesson before the dressage test. I did feel like surely I should have had a lesson on the test rather than lunging, but I was so pleased with how much I was learning on the lunge. When I used my sore muscles to check I was turning with him, everything got better in the dressage test – turns onto the centre line were easier, circles were better, he was straighter and halts were squarer, so even though it felt weird to do so, I still chose the lunge lesson.
My third lunge lesson (and the most recent one) was the most intense. Rising trot balance was there almost immediately so we moved on to sitting trot without stirrups. We did quite a lot of this although I didn’t feel like it was going as well as I hoped. By this lesson Drifter seemed to have understood a bit more about circles so we had fewer unexpected corners in the circles, which helped me. We moved on to cantering without stirrups (eek). On the easy left rein we did a lot of cantering. For all that’s our good rein it was still very hard for me and I spent most of the time clinging to the saddle with both hands while trying not to get flung off the side of the wall of death. At one point he got a bit worried and gave his usual response of speeding up, which I did not entirely appreciate. There was at least one point when I shouted that I was going to fall off … but didn’t. Then we tried the other side, repeatedly asking him to strike off in canter and him always going on the wrong leg, unfortunately. We discussed different ways I could try to get that canter lead on my own outside of my lesson as the lesson was now over.
Following this most intense lunge lesson it was several days before my muscles recovered enough for me to walk normally. The day after I didn’t even try to ride because I didn’t think I could! I was supposed to have another lunge lesson a few days later but I was still so sore I changed it to an ordinary lesson. We spent much of it trying different tricks to get the right canter lead, all of which failed. We tried asking conventionally, asking just before a pole across the corner of the school, asking on a circle, by riding him at the fence, and by counter bending him. All failed. Any more suggestions will be gratefully received! In my last regular lesson before I started lunge lessons we had this problem and eventually the instructor got on. It took her about 8 tries and she eventually got it by counterbending him into the wall, but when I tried that this time I still couldn’t get it.
I’m not really sure where we go from here. I thought I might try lungeing him without a person on top and see if he gets it then or not, but that will have to wait for a day when we won’t be in riders’ ways (as you’re not allowed to lunge in a school someone’s riding in or vice versa). I’m afraid I’m going to end up having to pay for a lot of schooling for him to get this, which I can’t really afford, but on the other hand if I want to do walk trot canter dressage (which I do want to do) or jump (I do want to do this once we’ve got canter steering sussed) then I need him to be able to canter in both directions!
On the other hand I’ve had him canter on that leg properly before. It was never easy to get him into canter in that direction, but I’m sure I’ve done it quite a few times and I think he was on the right leg, so I don’t know why he’s suddenly decided he can’t do that. In fact I’ve just checked back to my Centaur Biomechanics videos – he was on the correct leg that day, apart from one brief time when Russell pointed it out and we came back to trot. Quite why this has become a problem I don’t know. Hmm. I suspect this will be the subject of future blog posts. I’m glad I’ve got video evidence that we’ve successfully cantered on that rein on the correct leg, otherwise I’d be wondering if I’d imagined it. If we’ve done it before I’m sure we can do it again. I’m just not sure why we’ve it’s become such an issue lately, especially as so many things seem to be falling into place nicely. Cantering on our happy left rein I pretty much just have to think the transition to canter and it happens. We can do circles of a sort (remembering that his concept of a circle has corners and mine is often egg-shaped – what I really mean is we can make shapes that are vaguely roundish) and I am generally more relaxed and in control than I have ever been in canter before. So some things are going very well. No doubt in time we’ll solve this and then some new problem will arise! But in the meantime if anyone knows any tricks for getting that right canter lead happening, please do let me know.
*Yes, UK spelling – Firstly because I’m British and secondly because I find it really confusing that in the US you have horses lounging around, which sounds way less energetic than the reality of what you’re writing about!
**Drifter really puffs up when girthed. Initially every day I struggle to get him into the first hole one each side (i.e. the girth is as long as possible). Then I pick his feet which distracts him and then I can easily go up to 1 and 3. I walk him to the school where I go up to a minimum of 3 and 3 before getting on and should probably (although I often don’t) go to 4 on one side once I’m on.