Confession: This is my second attempt at this post. Yesterday’s had a lot of words. They even made sense, mostly, but they didn’t read nicely. So I started from scratch. This will have fewer words but more point. I hope.
On Monday it was really windy here. As I sat in the car at the traffic lights I could see them waving in the wind, which showed me that it was perfect weather to get on a large animal that doesn’t like the wind. Not.
OTOH we have an indoor school, so it will all be fine. However, when I got to the yard I discovered that there was to be no riding indoors that day. This did not make me happy. Following a near fall at the weekend (involving a car wash and a big spook) my bravery levels are a bit lower than usual and riding outdoors in the wind was not going to happen. Weighing up my options I decided to lunge in the little outdoor school (leaving the big school free for riders.*) Again, this didn’t really make me happy, the surface in there being very waterlogged during the winter, but at least I had a plan.
Since lameness receded I’ve only lunged him off a headcollar, because I’ve either been doing it to show/see how he moves or because I’m not well enough to get on and ride (and therefore want it to be minimum effort). In this wind that was not going to happen, so I put the bridle on him, threaded the lunge line through the bit ring on one side, over his head and clipped on the ring on the other side. If he did try to take off I’d have that little bit more control. Also, for the same reasons, in recent memory he hasn’t been in any side reins or pessoa to lunge. Although he’d be fine to reintroduce those now, high winds are not the time to try stuff that might be a challenge, so we skipped the artificial aids.
We headed out. He was unimpressed with the weather so I sang him a song as we walked to the school. I like to keep sounds coming out of my mouth when he’s bothered about the weather. I like to think it gives him a constant reminder that he’s not facing the elements alone, and I do it in hand or in the saddle. It also means I keep breathing even if I’m stressed by the situation, which keeps both of us calmer.
Arriving at the school we began by walking round in hand to check for any scary things before we started. This tends to calm both of us.
Then we started work. Without words and with the least body-language possible I suggested that he start walking a small circle around me. I gave him a soft line that he could take out further as soon as he got brave enough and let him decide on the speed. It seemed to work quite well and gradually he took the circle out and picked up the walk speed slightly. The wind pulled on the line between us, and as it was attached to the bit I think this put strange feelings through his mouth, because he worked with his head down much more than I would expect. He didn’t seem uncomfortable, just focussed on the bit. After a while I decided I really should ask him to trot, but I wanted to do it with the smallest bit of energy I could to avoid him suddenly becoming a crazy galloping monster. So I turned the whip to point slightly towards him and quietly called “And…. Trotting!” Nothing happened, so I did exactly the same again and this time he got the transition. It was a fairly lazy trot but I wasn’t going to get after him in the wind. I let him trot lazily for a while and brought him back to walk. He seemed to be listening quite well, so we repeated the transition. Eventually I got him doing trotting one half of the circle and walking the other with the transitions fairly prompt and responsive. I was still extremely quiet about what I was asking but for the first time in the history of owning this horse I was able to work transitions on the lunge and see the gaits improving from it. Usually he is so resistant to coming back to walk that I just can’t do that. Perhaps because I was being so quiet he actually focussed on what he was being asked to do and did it.
We turned to working in the other direction and managed to repeat the good work with transitions, again with visible improvement to the gait. It was so good, in fact, that I started to think about asking for a canter. On the one hand I have very windy weather, a horse that hasn’t been asked to canter on the lunge for the best part of a year, and was never that great at cantering on the lunge without bucking/galloping at the best of times. On the other I have an obedient, willing horse, ready to step up his work and perfectly capable of cantering circles with a rider now. So I revved up the trot, watching to see if he got worried and giraffe-y about the thought of canter preparation. He didn’t seem to be worried so I went on and asked him to canter.
I was expecting a slightly dramatic transition and I was not disappointed in that, but there was no bucking and no pulling on the line. He galloped about 1/3 of the circle before settling down to a rather nice canter. After only 1 full canter circle I brought him back to trot. That was all I wanted to do, both to reinforce that cantering on the lunge is not a big deal and because I don’t want him doing much cantering on a circle yet. I enjoyed the beautiful big post-canter trot for a bit and then stopped him and turned him back to the first side to try the canter in that direction too. This did mean he worked a little longer on that side, but as that’s his stiff side anyway, that’s the side he needs to work more.
On the second side I had to put more energy in to get the transition without him falling straight back to trot, but after a few false starts we got that circle of canter. And none of the transitions or near-transitions included galloping or bucking, hurray!
As he cooled down I realised that this was the best lungeing session I’d ever had with him. It was ridiculously windy, it was dusk, he hadn’t been turned out that day and the footing was soggy, but it was really good work. Why was it so good?
He gave me his attention and his obedience. Was that because he was looking to me for reassurance in the wind? Was it because I was keeping everything low energy and not asking with any more intensity if he ignored the first ask? Was it because I asked for the right thing at the right time?
I certainly think it helped that at the start I gave the absolute minimum instruction. I just asked him to go around me to the left and let him go at his own pace with a length of line pretty much of his choosing. I didn’t insist he be brave from the start. I think it helped that I went out with very low expectations – exercise but don’t let either of us get hurt. I think that keeping all my instructions very small and quiet made him work harder at obeying them.
I really hope I can take some lessons away from this session and improve our future work. I was so blown away (pun intended) that the session I was initially so grumpy about turned out to be such an eye opener.
*The teens are all very accomplished riders and bounce better than me in the rare event that they do fall, so while some were edgy, no one else decided they weren’t riding.