Lunging, riding and a smart re-clip

I was delighted to find that the sharp new clipper blades had been employed to good effect. As usual the photography is poor, but it’s hard to get a picture of a large animal in a very confined space after dark on a not-too-great mobile camera and I tried my best. You’ve already seen one of the not-quite-what-I-intended photos as the Halloween post.wpid-20131026_184118.jpg

This time they took more off the tummy and sides, which I’m really pleased about. I wanted to keep his legs and back end fully fuzzy, but he did still get quite hot after the first clip, so this seems like a good compromise. I do love his leg-warmers, which is why I’m posting this otherwise terrible picture! – to show you the thickness of the furry legs!wpid-20131026_184037.jpg

As mentioned previously, because of the physio & chiro rest days I haven’t been riding much. On Saturday night I got him groomed and pessoa-ed up for a lunge. It was dark and windy. We started with plenty of easy walking and stepped it up to trotting with some trot/walk transitions (these are much easier in the pessoa than side reins but he still has a tendency to keep trotting and trotting). He was getting much more confident trotting in the pessoa, so as we went on I tightened it gradually, thinking we would do a few more sessions in trot and then we could think about trying to introduce the canter, on the easy rein first. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, it was very dark and really rather windy. We were in the big school which has a large tree alongside it. The big tree did what big trees do in wind – it waved itself suddenly and (apparently) very alarmingly just as he was passing it. Drifter tried to put his head in the air and get away from the tree-monster with a canter stride or two. Of course he found that his head was tied down and his back end tied in. As you would expect in this situation, he started bucking.

I have spent some time watching YouTube videos of horses in pessoas and of them bucking in pessoas. In every one of these bucking videos I’ve seen, the horse does handstands while kicking out the back legs to free the back end from the strap around the hocks. There’s even one video in which the horse has got the hand of freeing herself and manages to get the back end off.

Not my little boy.

He went pronking. Yes, that’s a word. In case you’re not sure what it is, here’s a picture:Springbok_pronk

If a picture’s not doing it for you and you need a video, here’s the footage that introduced me to the concept of pronking in the first place.

I’m not sure wetting yourself with laughter is the approved response when your horse is bucking on the end of a lunge line, but honestly, he was hilarious. He pronked neatly for about 1/3 of a circuit, never putting any extra tension on the lunge line, keeping a neater circle than he usually does in his regular gaits before settling back into a fast trot. I put him straight back into the transitions as if nothing had happened and it was indeed as if nothing had happened.

I left the experience rather amused but thinking that perhaps it would be better to try an official canter attempt sooner rather than later, so that we would be better prepared for any more unexpected canters. I wanted him to be doing a little better in trot but I didn’t think we were far off a first little attempt, even though it would be a while before I’d regularly ask him to work in canter in it.

When I rode next I was pleasantly surprised with our mutual responsiveness. We were alone in the newly surfaced sand school but it was very deep and churned up so I thought maybe it would be best not to canter but to work in walk and trot. With our new-found abilities to move our bodies freely, we feel a little like a new horse and rider getting to know each other. Previous givens are no longer as they were. So walk and trot were more than enough to keep us busy. In fact, had it been only my interests I had to please, we could probably have done the whole session in walk, but he needs the chance to move out, so of course we did plenty of trotting too. In walk and trot he was forward, round and better balanced than I’m used to. I was focusing on how he moved, mainly going large with the occasional circle, centre line, serpentine or shallow loop. Then I thought I’d try running the walk-trot dressage test, which we hadn’t touched since August. It was hard. When it came to putting the movements together all our good form fell away. He rushed, I was unbalanced and struggled to steady him. He lost his roundness and bend, I overcompensated and ended up affecting directional control trying to get the bend back. Hmm. Not quite ready for all that yet are we? Back to mainly going large, and trying to do one good circle once he’s moving well on the straight.

The next time we met it was back on the lunge. Again the weather was poor and the school was soaking, but he was doing well enough in trot that I thought I might ask for a canter transition and see what happened. Only on his happy side, of course. So what did happen? Proper handstand bucking pulling me across the school happened initially, but only for a few seconds. Then he got into a very quick canter while I praised, soothed and tried to slow him down. Was it the way I’d want him to work regularly? No, not at all. Was I proud of him for getting it quickly without making more of a fuss? Yes, I certainly was. It’s hard for him to canter on the lunge, even without the pessoa, even on his happy rein, so he did better than I expected. Some of the excess speed was from the startling feeling of striking off in the pessoa, but some of it is just his usual “I don’t feel balanced so I rush and rush”. He stayed in canter for quite a while (I’d been asking for him to slow down almost since he’d got his canter, so this was not a case of me keeping him in canter!) and when he came back down the gears we started the cool down. I considered taking everything off and cantering him on the difficult rein without the pessoa, but decided against it. Now I intend to let that session “sit”. He’s done it now, so he knows he can canter in it. I don’t think he’s ready to work that way yet, but if we have another spook related incident in the pessoa he now knows how to canter in it. We’ll work in walk and trot with it until he’s stronger and then reintroduce the canter in the future.

Next time I rode. Again, I found walk fascinating. As I mentioned in the previous post he has a habit of leaning on the rider’s arm through the left rein which I had been not feeling because of the stiff part of my upper left back. I think I’d just been setting that unfeeling stiffness against his leaning. This ride, for the first time, I managed not to do that at all. All the time I was riding I was mindful of that part of my back and keeping him from doing that. For the first time I had the feeling my instructor described where you feel like you’re holding directly onto the bit rings rather than to the reins. I really had the feel of his mouth as if I was that directly joined to him rather than through the reins. It was hard. For both of us. He struggled to carry himself because he wanted to lean on me and I wouldn’t let him. I had to have a constant focus on it. I found that when we were on the track and I was asking for a slight inside bend, regardless of direction, he was OK with that (perhaps suggesting I’m letting him lean on the outside rein while asking for inside bend?) but when I tried a centre-line, 3/4 line or diagonal he really struggled to hold himself and be straight. I found this really interesting and would have loved to work longer, but after 20 min. I  felt that I couldn’t really carry on because it was exhausting me. At the time I felt like a wuss, as I cooled him down on the buckle, and wished I could have worked for longer.

But a couple of hours afterwards I was really glad I stopped when I did. My left shoulder was really painful! I’m pretty sure that throughout the 2 yrs and 6 months that I’ve been riding, every time I rode I’ve taken the weight of the contact through that stiff bit of my back. The muscles that should have been working in that shoulder and strengthening every time I rode had never worked before. No wonder after 20 min. I felt like I couldn’t do any more. The wonder is how I managed a full 20 min of hard use on those muscles before I stopped. I iced the shoulder and went to bed.

In the morning it was sore enough that I was mildly worried I’d done more than just overwork it. It really hurt and there were certain positions in which I just couldn’t hold the arm up with it. But I thought it was probably just extreme muscle soreness and spend large portions of the day consuming protein to rebuild it, and planning to ride again that night. Driving from work to the stable  I was begging lights to change so that I wouldn’t have to move my left arm to change gear, and planning my route to minimise gear changes. At some point on the journey I decided that riding like this wasn’t going to do anything constructive for either of us. Much as it galled me not to improve on the work we’d been doing, and much as I wanted him to have a work out after the short session the day before, I had to accept I just wasn’t capable. It was particularly galling because if I’d realised earlier that I couldn’t ride, I could have gone out straight from work for drinks with a friend. I have to say I really feel that he hasn’t had as much exercise as he should this week, but I suppose it won’t hurt for just one week. It will get easier to increase his exercise as a) the physio’s happy with his progress and doesn’t want to see him again for 3-4 months, so he won’t be on light duties again (touch wood) and b) I suspect that dropping my chiro sessions from twice a week to once a week will be happening very soon, so I’ll have half as many days in the week when I can’t ride from that point of view.

The next day, today, my shoulder is feeling much better. It’s still very painful in certain positions, but it’s just muscle soreness that will heal itself quickly enough. I won’t be riding today but lunging again because I saw the chiropractor again this morning. He’s pleased with my progress and my next session with him will be an assessment of how far I’ve come since I started with him a few weeks ago. Honestly I don’t care whether he’s pleased or not – I’m delighted. Yes I think there’s still room for improvement, but the benefits have been so much greater than I would ever have dared hope. I feel like every day now I get up out of the right side of the bed. I feel like the best bits of a relaxing holiday without having to travel anywhere. I’ve turned into a chiropractic evangelist! Now if I can just get that shoulder stronger so it doesn’t try to drop off every time I ride for 20 minutes, I’ll be pretty impressed with my body.

We went shopping in TKMaxx after we’d been to the chiropractor, as I was in need of an evening dress or 2. I got 3 as it happens, all reduced and all more in the cocktail dress line of things rather than full length. Mr S goes to a surprising number of evening events and so I have to be kept in dresses so as not to let the side down. Anyway, to get to the point of this apparently off topic digression; as well as feeling much better, I think my body looks much better. Trying on various dresses I felt that every one looked much better on me than they would have in the past. It’s no great surprise that one looks more like the classical ideal of beauty with level hips and shoulders, with a straight upright neck and generally with everything lining up, but it’s another very pleasant side effect. Before my first session I read the brochure, “What to expect from your treatment” but nowhere was I warned that side effects might include feeling unusually happy and beautiful!

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On and off the lunge line


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.