It took three weeks, but I finally got my butt back on a horse.
Between being sick, cold weather, and a busy schedule with hobbies and the girls, I've missed quite a bit of time riding. So I was really stoked to get back to the barn and be able to ride. Before my unplanned break I had made some nice progress with my seat and connection, and I was afraid that I'd not be able to duplicate the success.
On Monday I started with Albert, and when I took his blanket off to groom him I could see that three weeks with no work had made him live up to his name. He used to be called "Fat Albert", and he sure was looking tubby now! I should have called the barn and told them to cut his food back, but I never thought I'd be three weeks without riding. Oh well, he'll lose it in the spring when he can get ridden more and be outside for longer.
I decided to ride bareback because I wanted to make sure I wasn't gripping with my legs too much as I had before. Albert was very good bareback, and we did a basic 15 minute warm-up ride. I didn't get into any lateral work or extensions, because it had been 3 weeks off for him too, and both he and Kaswyn are both in their late teens so I didn't want to push it and cause soreness or injury.
Kaswyn had put on a little weight too, and I was happy about that. Despite the fact that he's an Arabian and should be an easy keeper like Albert, he's a big Arab at 16 hands tall and needs more food than the smaller guys. I also rode Kaswyn bareback with a 15 minute warm-up ride. I gave all three of us three days off, and planned rides on Friday.
Today I rode both horses in their saddles. I concentrated on keeping my legs open and not using them to grip, only putting them on the horse for aids. This alone is helping both horses to be much more responsive to my leg because much of the time I'm not squeezing them anymore. It's much less effort for me, and I'm sure it's nicer for them too. I'm sure my gripping leg was stopping some of the freedom in their backs, and probably interrupting the flow of energy from back to front.
I also worked on my hands in regards to the connection. I realized weeks ago that my hands were very busy. I was constantly readjusting the neck or the mouth or the head, fiddling with the bit. My last lesson with my trainer was great because it really showed me that I wasn't getting Albert to use his back and engage from behind. This also translated into Kaswyn, although it was harder to feel because he was more subtle about it.
Now when I ride both horses I think "Legs open and light, hands quiet." Riding bareback has given me a better understanding when both horses aren't using their backs. I can feel it less when I'm in a saddle, but I've been using the shape of their necks as clues to when the engagement behind stops and the back isn't working. When I feel like I have good engagement and the back up, the neck looks very round in front of me, with the base of the neck big and soft. As soon as the horse stops using his back, or the hindquarters disengage, the neck changes. It's very subtle, but I can see the base of the neck get narrower and the neck gets longer as the horse pushes the nose out and up a little to help use the neck instead of the back and the haunches. When the neck gets longer the contact with the bit increases, and I can feel it slightly in my hands.
To re-engage the back and hindquarters, I close my fingers on the reins, taking slightly more contact, and drive forward with my seat and leg. If I time it correctly I can feel both horses come up under me with their backs, and they get soft in the bit and round in the neck. Basically what I feel like I'm doing is finishing the half-halt that the horse started by coming a little against my hand. It's hard for both of them and today sometimes I had to do it every five strides or so, mostly in the warm-up. But by the end of the ride they were both able to maintain the engagement for longer periods of time. So I think we're making progress.
That's just my opinion, by going on how it feels to me. I'll really know if I'm doing the correct things when I have my next lesson when my trainer gets back from Florida in two weeks. I think I'll have both horses back in shape by then. I'll also have myself back in shape! I rode each horse for only 20 minutes and I was really tired.
And to show how tired I was, I did something indulgent when I got home from the barn. Since I had the day off, I rode in the morning, came home, ate lunch, and took a shower. Then, instead of doing laundry or cleaning the house, I got into bed and took a two hour nap! It was fantastic!
It's unfortunate that every day can't be like that - morning rides on horses that learn and try to please, then lunch and a nap. Somehow I don't think my boss would let me work that into my schedule.
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