Back scratches and making circles in the sandpit

wpid-20150406_113621.jpgDrifter has missed me. After my last holiday I told you that on my return he was interested in grooming me, which is not usual for him. After this one he groomed me a lot. I have never before been groomed by this horse unless I happened to be standing in a place where he could do so without making much effort, and never for more than a minute or so. Now he will maintain it for ages, and continue, twisting round so he can still reach me while I move down his body towards the tail. It’s nice to be appreciated! I dare say one I’ve been back a week or so he’ll stop bothering, but for now it’s rather nice.

He doesn’t seem girthy, which he always has after previous holidays, which was a pleasant surprise and although he refused to open his mouth for the bit the first time I tacked him up, since then he has been obliging. Obviously when he is ridden by staff they can’t observe all the little routines and rituals a horse and owner establish, but it’s good to see he hasn’t been as affected by them this time.

Under saddle he seems well. He feels ready to work. There’s a little edge of Spring energy giving him a slightly more questioning attitude, but it’s in no way detrimental to a good ride. And as for me, I feel ready for work too, albeit from a very different direction. He is physically strong and needs work to shed a little extra weight, direct the energy and develop his movement and skills.  I am physically weak, and need work to build strength and fitness and I wouldn’t mind shedding a little weight myself. His cardiac system has not been challenged much recently by anything. My cardiac system has recovered from the viral/post-viral symptoms, but is seriously unfit from lack of exercise. The positive side of my physical weakness is that I’ve shed a lot of bad riding habits which came from using strong muscles to let weak ones hide. When all the muscles are as proportionally weak as each other, it is far easier to use them all properly, and ride with less resistance and less one-sided-ness. Also, because nothing feels normal/automatic, it’s easier to evaluate the style and effectiveness of the way you ride.

So we had a lesson, making circles in the sandpit (i.e. dressage) which went as follows:

Once we had a reasonable walk established we worked on stopping. This is the instructor who pointed out that there is no point us trying to work on getting a pretty, square halt until we have a predictable ability to stop somewhere vaguely near where I’d like to stop, with no unasked for rein-backs, turns, ploughing on regardless, etc. So we worked on walk, ask him to stop, and the second he stops get him to walk on again so there is no time for him to start moving legs in unwanted patterns. This one is still a work in progress.

After that we worked on getting a nice trot, getting a nice rhythm and getting him working from his lazy back-end. We got some compliments, which was nice. Then we moved on to trot spiralling slowly between a 20 m and 7 m circle. I used to do trot spirals on lesson horses and when I first got Drifter I assumed I would work him on trot spirals, but they were so hard for him I had no chance of doing anything even roughly recognisable with. In this lesson, for the first time we had good, controlled spiralling, with the back-end leading the inward/outward movement, with good connection between all of him and all of me, on both reins! There was a moment on the right rein where I completely lost it but I got it all back. In fact there were lots of moments where we lost things a little and then got them back. This delights me because it suggests I will be able to repeat it on our own without the instructor because I am working by feel, not by what I am told to do.

Once I was completely exhausted by the trot spirals it was time to canter. And canter from a sitting trot. I know that’s a skill most riders pick up in their first 6 months of riding, but for me this is massive news. I cantered, several times in each direction, from a sitting trot. This means a) I now have a sitting trot that’s good enough a horse can cope with it without losing the plot b) I now can not only manage that sitting trot, but also maintain it while I engage brain and limbs to give the canter aids and c) I can do all of the above with someone watching and do it when asked. This suggests d) I may be over the mental block that meant when someone said, “Sitting trot” I used to hear, “Clench every muscle, panic, flail and consider stopping breathing.”

He said “Sit.” I sat. Not with any great style and flair, but well enough get the job done. He said “Canter.” I got over my surprise and, after a little mental delay, cantered. And then we did it a few more times, changed the rein and repeated. I cannot believe I got it right every time. Obviously some were better than others and there was one where I gave a massive leg aid by accident and got a correspondingly massive reaction, but every single time I was asked to sit and then canter, I sat and then cantered. I can’t really believe it. And while we were cantering we still had connection, most of the time. We still had steering from the outside rein, mostly, although I had to fight for it. We still had respect for my inside leg and a back-end that was doing at least its share of the work.

We did well. We did really unprecedentedly well. This instructor is quiet with his praise and with his criticism, but I can’t remember ever having heard him say “Good” so many times in one session with anyone. Perhaps he was in a generous mood, but I think in this lesson we laid down a new circle in the sand for the way we want to dressage.

The “feel” that I learnt when I could only ride in walk; the rude health of my spring beastie; the relaxed mind from my holiday; the pleasure of being back with my/his own horse/human; the readiness to work from both of us – it all came together and we dressaged like … like … like us, dammit, but better!


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