The last two weeks have been a bit of a struggle for me as far as Phil is concerned.
My trainer flew off to sunny Florida for two months to train with her trainer (not that I’m jealous or anything…stuck here in dreary, cold Cleveland…blah) and I didn’t get a chance to get one more lesson in before she left. I figured I could muddle on through for eight weeks and she could help repair the damage when she got back.
Well, the issues I was having just got bigger and bigger, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix them. I was still trying to help Phil establish and maintain a connection with my hand. This was something my trainer mentioned that I had to work on in my last lesson. She gave me an exercise to help straighten him that also helped improve the connection, so I began to practice that. I continued to practice the bending exercise and it help improve his connection a little bit, but it didn’t seem like I was really making progress.
So I started concentrating on the connection. I just couldn’t get Phil to maintain it for more than a few strides. Then he would bounce against the bit, and even jiggle his head a little.
I tried to just be still, and let him find my hand, and loosen his neck when he got stiff and resistant. That wasn’t working. So I tried transitions. I tried changing directions. I tried changing the gaits within the gaits – lengthening then shortening the strides at the trot and canter. We were both getting frustrated because nothing was working. Phil became very distracted and started reacting to everything that was going on in the arena. Another horse walking around, someone walking in, a cat running by – he just could not concentrate and would bring his head up and quicken his stride.
Over two weeks things deteriorated into Phil just rushing forward, avoiding contact, being resistant when I tried to make contact, and being stressed out and distracted. Suddenly I had this horse that was acting more like a wild green 3-year-old than a trained 6-year-old. I called my trainer on the way to the barn with a pleading message of “Phil’s being a jerk – help me figure this out!”
Our ride that night was the worst one yet. Distractions in the arena made him tense and inattentive, and I spent my time trying to get him to slow down and get on the bit. I tried everything that night, but what mostly happened is we flew around the ring in a barely controlled frenzy. It seemed that Phil didn’t know what I wanted, and that was making him frantic that he was going to get in trouble despite my assurances to him that “It’s ooookkkkaaaay…you’re a goooood boooy…”. After 40 minutes I was out of ideas. I sat on him and walked for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. Then I thought, “What would I do if Kaswyn were acting this way?”
The answer – I’d sit my ass down, put on my big girl breeches and RIDE.
So I did. I wrapped my legs around Phil, like a vice, and said “GO. Now. Go to my hand.” And I kept that leg on. Not a kicking, hard driving leg, but a firm hug that said GO. When he launched forward I absorbed the energy in my hand and just went with it, using my seat to help slow him. When he tried to come off the bit I squeezed harder and drove him back down to my hand. When he got distracted, he got another hard squeeze. I put my leg on strong, and I kept it there.
I asked him to do only one thing – go to my hand. I realized that I hadn’t been putting my leg on him at all, since he was so jumpy and squirrely. I was keeping my leg off of him, afraid that he would over-react and jump forward. Even though he was rushing forward, and jumping around, and was too quick, he needed MORE leg. It sounds like that’s the last thing I would want to do on a horse that’s apt to run off with me, but that is just what he needed.
The last ten minutes of our ride was bliss. He did what I asked, and I felt him make contact, connect the back to the front, and use his back. I was so proud of him for turning it around, and listening to what I was asking.
When I was able to talk to my trainer later about it, she said that sometimes it’s hard with young horses like that, and you just have to tell them in no uncertain terms what you want. And when you do, be uncompromising, but not in a mean or combative way. Just be clear, and firm. My problem is that I wasn’t using my leg enough, I wasn’t being clear, and I wasn’t giving him direction. The firm leg and clear direction was comforting to him. I think most of his issues with anxiety stem from not being sure of what I want, and thinking that he’s in trouble when he makes a mistake.
Fortunately I think we have cleared that up. Today I’ll ride again, and we’ll see if I can give him better direction. Then he can relax and get to work without so much stress (for either one of us). I’m hoping to show Training Level at a schooling show in about two weeks. I was starting to get worried, but now I think we can pull it off.