Last week I had a lesson with my trainer on Albert. He's my friend Susan's 18 year old Arabian gelding, and last year I showed him Training and First Level. My trainer has had him in training in the past, but it's always been for a few months at a time, and never anything consistent. Since I moved Kaswyn back to our old barn where Albert is, I've been riding both horses (well, when Kaswyn isn't hurt, that is). Albert has always had tons of talent and is very willing to work, but this is the first time that I've been able to work with him for a long period of time.
After the show season last year, I started trying to teach Albert flying changes. He got so nervous about it that he'd just throw his head in the air and run as fast as he could. We did exercises that my trainer gave me, but he was still giving me problems. Also at the right lead canter he was bearing down on the bit a lot, so that needed some work. My trainer suggested putting him in the double bridle, which would give me a little more control when he bolted, and would also give me a little more elevation when he went to bear down at the canter.
I was hesitant. This horse had something happen to him in his past that made him very scared when he didn't know what was expected of him, or while he was learning anything new. For example, when we were preparing for First Level and we started schooling leg yields, the moment I put my leg on him to ask him to move sideways he threw his head up, grabbed the bit, and flew sideways. I knew from his reaction that he had anxiety about what was expected of him. Most of the time this horse is a cool as a cucumber, and super submissive. But when I put him in a situation where he was unsure, he panicked.
So I didn't want to put these big bits in his mouth and possibly make him more scared of the whole situation. My trainer assured me that since I was always patient and kind to him that it would all work out okay. We set a lesson day and time, and I brought Kaswyn's double bridle to the barn.
Just holding that bridle brought back a flood of memories and emotions for me. It's the bridle that I used on Kaswyn when we won our first National Championship. It's the bridle that I used to ride him in every day while we trained and worked hard. When he wore that bridle, he was at the top of his game. Now, Kaswyn is injured and is only allowed to walk. It kind of felt like passing the torch in a way. I told myself not to be upset, and that Kaswyn will wear that bridle again if it is meant to be. Then I punched a ton of holes in the bridle to get it to fit Albert's tiny head.
We started our lesson just walking and warming up. Albert did not seem upset about the additional bit and weight in his mouth. I tried to stay off of the curb , but every time I took up on the snaffle I was automatically taking up on the curb. My trainer had a suggestion for a new way for me to hold the reins. I had always held the snaffle outside my pinky finger, and the curb between my pinky and my ring finger. She suggested moving the reins up one finger, so that the snaffle was between the pinky and ring finger and the curb was between the ring finger and the middle finger.
I was surprised how much of a difference this made. It felt a bit weird, but it allowed me better control of the curb rein so that I wasn't making it too tight. This made Albert much happier, because the few times I got the curb a little snug he tossed his head up and got anxious. It wasn't tight, but for his first time he wasn't ready for any sustained contact with the curb.
My trainer had me run through our usual workout, making suggestions and fixing things as we went along. Then we got to the part where we school piaffe. I find with Albert that he more I do something new, the less upset he is about it. I just keep reassuring him that he's a good boy, and eventually he calms down and is able to get to work. So I've been working just a little piaffe every time I ride him. I don't have mirrors, or anyone to watch me ride, so I wasn't really sure if he was getting it or not. I knew he was doing something with his legs when I put my legs back on him and did the half-halt, but I couldn't tell if it was correct or not.
My trainer said that he was getting the idea but he was coming off the bit and freezing the front end, therefore not moving his front legs at all and just kind of bracing. He was certainly moving his hind legs, and at times got the correct rhythm, so what I needed to do was make him stay round, which would keep the front end soft, and allow him to move his legs.
Well, Albert didn't like that very much. He wanted to throw his head up and brace with his neck. So my trainer had me take contact with with curb just a little bit. Albert did not like that at ALL. He starting fussing big time, tossing his head and and even running backwards a few steps. My trainer just said "It doesn't matter. Just get him going forward. Don't over-react, but make him go forward and stay soft in front."
Easier said than done! But in the end, I was able to keep him softer in the front and then all I had to do was think piaffe and he was active in both front and behind for a few steps. It still needs a lot of work, but now I know how to tackle it.
After a walk break, my trainer watched us run through trot half-passes and medium trots, which she said were pretty good but could be better. I'll work on getting more bend in the half-passes, and keeping him slow and a bit more up in the forehand for the medium trots.
Last were the flying changes. They were much better than the last time we worked on them eight months ago, because now at least he's not totally running off with me. He is still nervous, and wants to invert his neck and break contact, toss his head in the air, and rush forward after he attempts the change. My trainer had me do the same exercise that we've been schooling, which is to do a ten meter collected canter circle to one side of X, then at X change directions and ask for the flying change.
The first thing she had me visualize is to think of myself as a Barbie doll. I need to just sit there, and not react or change my seat when he takes off. I must stay in as perfect of a position as I can, and maintain it so that he gets the idea that he can fuss all he wants, but I'm not going to change. I'm going to continue to ask the same things of him, without punishment, but I will make him go forward when he resists and I will stop him with a big half halt when he runs off. No matter what though I will return to my Barbie doll position and calmly ask again.
So I became Barbie. I tried really hard to be steady and firm with my seat without being too demanding with my leg or hard with my hands. It was a struggle at times, because he was resistant and nervous, but finally he settled down and we got some clean flying changes. The best part is he wasn't freaking out, and my trainer said the changes were jumping and through, very expressive without being out of control.
I will continue to ride Albert in the double bridle from now on, unless he's on a trail ride or we have an easy hack day. I have a lesson next week, and I'm really looking forward to it. I always seem to make a lot of progress when I have a lesson.
It feels like Albert graduated from Elementary School, and is now in Middle School. He's starting his big boy education and he's 18 years old. Better late than never!
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