Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Horse Named Wesley

What a productive and enlightening Friday yesterday was! Jam packed, but excellent. I ran through the pastures, cleaning up the increased load with an additional mare brought down below. Water troughs filling as I cleaned, I tried to cut down time being spent on the chores. I had stripped off Milo's blanket as soon as I arrived at the barn, letting him bask in the sunshine that was starting to loose intensity in it's rays. I knew he had probably been dying to feel it's warmth as it teased him with beauty all day long, as it teased me as well, sitting in my office desk, gazing out the window and waiting for the time to tick by.

I finished up my chores, and haltered Milo up, leading him quickly to the barn. I had t-minus one and one half hour to ride before my lesson would begin with Sarah at six. Wow, three times this week now I have felt the pressures of a time constraint - its not my favorite means by which to ride. However, I as confident I could get a good work period in before needing to drive the seven or so minutes to the barn Sarah gives lesson at off the Island (Bainbridge Island where Sarah's facility is, to you non-Washington savvy readers).

Milo was shedding in huge chunks - ripples of hair falling away at the slightest stroke from the curry comb, then replaced by the shedding blade. He naturally had to roll after the blanket was removed, making him a shedding and dusty mess. I got the bulk of shedding hair removed, and a quick wipe down for the dust and debris from my favorite grooming brush. I chucked the bareback pad over his back, fastened it down, and snatched my headstall and lifter bit. We headed down to the arena. T-minus 45 minutes now. I relaxed a little, knowing I still had ample time.

The outdoor arena was a popular choice today, given the nice weather and a haul in for a lesson with the secondary trainer. No matter, however, as not only is the arena large enough to accommodate everyone, but I also enjoy riding with this group, being friends of mine. The outdoor shares two fence-lines that also act as a pasture end to the horses that in-habitat a lessee's property on the facility grounds. Their three horses were turned out in that adjoining pasture, enjoying the sunshine as the rest of us where. They were, however, frisky as one of the boarders was lunging her fresh mare. Milo eyeballed them slightly, as they careened around the fence-lines, instigating play. I torso twisted back and forth, finding our soft spot together. Soon, Milo was ignoring the loping horses, and we were tuning into each other, back and forth along straight and turning serpentine lines.

The horses were soon put back in their farther pasture, allowing the other horses in the arena an opportunity to relax and get to work. I was having a ton of fun with Milo and figuring out more and more the benefits of the torso twisting. I even mentioned to the lunger the level of fun I was having, describing it as a dance, as it was. Milo engaged from the rear and when we were reliably engaging and working together, finding our rhythm, I moved him onto a circle, arcing, counter arcing, using my hips to rotate his hips in and out, arcing and counter arcing. He was being such a good boy, I moved him off the figure eights onto a few straight lines, then relaxed my back - he stopped up underneath himself nicely. A few nice 180  degree correct spins later, and I slid off of his back. Time was up now and I had only a brief period of time to groom him, stretch him, and put him back away. But I was very happy with the ride, as each time we connect more, and more, and I gain greater control over my body.

Milo tucked back into his blanket and deposited back into the pasture with Old Man Jakers, I loaded up into my truck and headed Sarah's way.

Upon arrival, she was finishing up with a young girl and her naughty, but cute, pony. Isn't that nice how ponies can be naughty but still adorable? Trouble is, they know it. Sarah said I could brush Wesley and get to know him a bit, so I did. He was unmistakable in the box stalls. I had met him briefly once before at Sarah's place, where he was throwing a minor temper tantrum on the lunge-line, fresh from a few days off due to snow and no power in one of our last winter storms.

I clipped a lead time to his leather halter and walked into his stall. I did not remember him being that big. Standing at close to 16.2 hands or higher, I was slightly intimidated as I stroked his head and patted his gleaming, sleek neck. But he looked kindly at me with a large liquid eye, and I took his stable sheet off of him, feeling better. I brushed his glossy coat, which only had some dust particles on it. Then Sarah came around the corner bringing his saddle, pads, and bridle. She tacked him up and we went into the arena.

Wesley was feeing full of it, with less-then-intimidating bucks on the close lunge-line. A big boy, and one with a personality, he was a little weak in the bucking department. Sarah got on him first, which I was totally OK with. She warmed him up, got him moving straight and did some lead changes on him. I watched her ride, distracted however by the last lesson student waiting for her mother. A nice kid, but she was sure talkative. What I did get to watch however, but a very responsive horse, and I could see the subtle torso twisting Sarah was doing with him, to calm and relax. I was waiting for the butterflies of nervousness to creep in, watching his attitude. But they surprisingly never came. I knew Wesley wasn't a bad horse, he was just feelin' it, and Sarah had him under control. She later said that he does not travel well in the trailer, and even needs to be brought to a show a day in advance to help put him back together.

She dismounted and it was my turn. I climbed aboard the lumbering fellow, and found my position in the saddle, also an About the Horse; a number one bar, and rough-out seat. It was comfortable, and made me eager for mine to come. Every time I ride in those saddles they put me in the best, most effective position, and they are just so darn comfortable!

I walked around a bit, figuring this horse out and finding our rhythm together. Sarah let me feel him out a few minutes before really starting instruction, which was helpful. For his size, he seemed to have a shorter, not necessarily choppy stride, but not as long as Milo's It probably is longer, however, due to his size, but I suppose what I was feeling was less than what I was anticipating because of the size of the big horse. I had to remember though, that he is a western riding horse, not an english one, which most likely equates his shorter stride than that of a same sized english geared horse.

We moved into a trot per Sarah's instruction, and she had me torso twist back and forth, encouraging me to slow down his pace and found ours together. Initially, I was what you could say, pounding in the saddle. I wasnt giving him an open space to come up underneath. My spur was asking for lift, but my body wasnt allowing it. Once addressed by Sarah though, I softened my seat, and he started lifting. Next, she wanted me to slow down still, to soften my back and bring him up more. I discovered one of the many aha moments that was to come. I found the incredible difference that can be made when I suggest a rhythm with my body. Wesley was jogging much too quickly, and I was basically playing catch up. Once I slowed down my body and relaxed, not riding in a somewhat frantic manner trying to keep up with him, he slowed down and came up underneath as well. Wow, I thought, and voiced my discovery for Sarah. It was incredible how I could manipulate our speed, and find our rhythm together simply by softening my body and slowing down my breathing.

I sort of accidentally put Wesley into the lope, but Sarah said it was OK and we then moved into the real heart of the lesson - freeing up my body at the lope. Instantly I tightened my lower back, but wasnt bracing - this horse is so slow and engages so well, it hard to get as tight as I do on Milo. With reminder to loosen my back from Sarah, and start some torso twists, I soon relaxed into this western riding horse's slow and steady pace. I was able to move my body freely in whatever direction needed or desired, at the lope. On a circle, Sarah had be put him together; arcing, but mostly counter arcing she said was best for him, and I was changing my torso direction as needed for him. She also said that I can counter twist my body for him, slowly go back to neutral, then twist the other direction, come back to neutral and twist back to the original position (this would later tie in with a later aha moment). Pushing his hip to the outside in a counter arc, then half halting on the outside rein, Wesley released his tightened shoulder and raised up about a solid two inches. OMG! I felt that for sure! It was super cool to say the least, and something I needed to feel and learn how to achieve true straightness all the way through the horse.

Now that he was well put together at the lope, Sarah sent me down the straight of ways to do some flying lead changes. The first few changes weren't very well, with Wesley changing on the front before the rear, mostly because he knew the change was coming and I hadn't set him up properly. I softened my back and got back into my torso twisting rhythm, and the next time I asked I made sure to rotate my hips in conjunction with my leg cue. We changed leads back and forth, back and forth down the long side of the arena, changing every three strides or so. It felt very cool, but wasn't as near good as when I came back down the other arena wall and changed leads that direction. I finally had found a rhythm to the lead changes, which incorporated by hips, legs, and hands as I changed outside rein for each lead change. The very last one we executed was the very best, with lots of lift and in sync together. I also discovered that the lead changes, for Wesley at least, don't require an excessive amount of hip change. I kept envisioning his huge displacement of my hips for each lead change, but really its quite subtle and just corresponds with the leg and rein. Now for Milo to learn, initially I will have to make more obvious hip changes, but it was cool to see that that isn't necessary in the end product. Wesley was being such a good boy so we came down to a walk and let him walk out a bit on a loose rein.

I talked with Sarah and she asked what I was getting so far. Then she brought a whole new concept to me. As I was meandering around on Wesley as we chatted, I was still torso twisting as needed, but Sarah saw that I would let locked in one direction. For instance, I had wanted Wesley's hip to travel out in a counter arc, so I positioned my hips out as well. With no immediate response, I just held them there in a locked position, locking down Wesley as well. Sarah said that its not just the tools she is giving me that are important, but the way that I apply them. She put that well saying that riding is always moving and changing and we have to change for the horse as needed, never to hold one solid position. Instead, I needed to counter weight him because in that locked position he really couldn't balance properly. The hips, as I understood from the previous lesson on Milo, direct the horse's hip, but we need to be riding the entire horse, so if the hips are going one way and he aren't balancing for the shoulder as well, the shoulder can get forgotten. We need to always be accommodating for the ever changing needs of the horse at that time. This definitely made sense and I could see how I had been doing that when riding Milo as well.

So I started experimenting at that ambling walk moving my hips as needed for the big horse. On a counter arc, my hips would be out, but if I could feel his shoulder travel I came back to neutral, even torso twisting the other direction if needed, then coming back to the outside again. It was coming together, this new idea of really putting it all together, and it was great. I even noted that this would be quite effective in our turnarounds, or spins. Sarah agreed and had me put Wesley on a spin. Wesley is no reining horse, but as a western riding horse he executes perfect flying lead changes, and can turn and spin with precision, just not a whole lot of speed. But honestly, this horse is farther ahead in his spins than Milo is, going at the same speed were are at right now but with a hitch - his hocks are strong enough so he can do a few rotations around on the inside leg, not just a few steps as Milo is right now. Which is perfectly fine however, as Wesley is older, more trained, and has strength in his hocks. Milo will get there.

So on the spin, I pushed his hip over slightly (less exaggerated then with Milo right now), then half halted with the outside rein and bumped with the outside leg as well. Wesley gave nice spins, and the only reminder needed from Sarah was to sit up straighter and a little back. You could say I had been "hunting" that spin, looking in the direction of travel, yes, but kind of hunched and forward anticipating the direction of movement. Once I sat straighter though and really turned my hips into the direction of travel, Wesley's shoulder was freed up and he speed up a little more. Aha, this can be applied directly to Milo for sure.

I asked a few silly questions, although really no questions are stupid. One being that I noticed Wesley holds his head much like Milo does, seemingly bracing against my left rein and tipping his head towards the right. I thought this would be too much of a stretch to imagine both horses coincidentally doing that, and asked if it was coming from me. Which of course it was. Because I ride so consistently off of my left rein, even when I dont mean to, it gets the horses bracing against that rein. I still need to continue to find my right rein and stop balancing off of the left. Its a hard process for me, but being aware of the problem helps me try and correct it at least. I then asked if there is ever a proper time to ride off of both reins, as we are always seeming to change the rein we ride off of for the outside rein. Sarah said yes, at times. In reining for instance, those brief loping strides in the center of the two circles could call for riding both reins as we prepare for the lead change. Only a few steps, because then we switch outside rein and go into the lead change. This made sense to me, and I understood how we never really need to ride both, which was good for me to understand because many times when Im just cooling down or even warming up Milo, I ride off of both.

I had gotten exactly what I needed from this lesson. I am capable of freeing my body at the lope. I saw the true changes in the horse when I would make subtle changes in my own body inclusive of not only finding out pace together and slowing him down as we did early on in the lesson, but the minor hip change needed for a lead change. I also discovered a valuable concept of riding the complete horse, and ever changing my body to suit his needs at the time, never putting myself into a locked hip position. All very valuable lessons for me to feel, hear, and discover.

I pulled the tack off of Wesley at the trailer, brushed him, and put his blanket back on, leaving him in the box stall where I originally found him. I was very happy to have been given the opportunity from Sarah to ride her high quality horse. Never before had I ridden a horse of such high caliber. Thats not to say that Milo isn't a great horse, he is, but he does not have the same quality and training time as Wesley does. Milo can get there, I believe, but he wont ever be a lead changing machine as Wesley is, which is OK, Milo wasn't built for that. But we can give some good lead changes in a reining pattern, thats a conceivable goal for us. I'm looking forward to finding the rhythm with Milo in our loping, now that I know my body is capable.


Story said...

I love reading about these lessons. They always sound very challenging and demanding and they always seem to bring results! It will be neat to hear how this all translates when you get back on Milo.

paint_horse_milo said...

Haha! I LOVE receiving them!! And this was too cool being on her very finished horse - what a privilege! I too look forward to seeing how this will translate for Milo. Hate to disappoint, but we are two more weeks out until the next lesson now. Work makes me too busy next week