We arrived at my lesson with Sarah slightly early, and with her previous appointment a little late. Milo, fortunately, was not worked up about his meet with Diego, and stood tied to the trainer sleepy-eyed and quietly. I tacked him up, and Sarah said I could begin warming him up as she addressed the saddle fitting with her other appointment. I started him off with a little bit of groundwork, encouraging him to lift his back and reach laterally with his hind end. After a little while both directions, I fastened the headstall onto him and climbed aboard.
I warmed up working on some squares, trying to establish straight definitive lines and even, lifted shoulders through the turns. Milo was working well, and Sarah noted too that the work looked good. Appointment now done, we were able to officially begin the lesson.
Sarah had me work on large figure eight circles, much the same as I had been doing with Wesley, at the trot. Encouraging lateral movement from the hips out of the circle, establishing straight again through the circle, and again laterally on the new circle direction. Milo was doing well but it was quickly discovered that it was much harder for him to step his hip laterally going to the right (hips to the right, tracking on a left circle). Sarah encouraged me to torso twist from counter to center. Coming to center was where Milo really started to "bog down", so we tried the twisting with a little more nose to the inside, making it easier for him to swing his hip out. Finally, we were getting some nice lateral steps at the trot, and it showed back on the straight-of-way.
A few pounds heavier and only his third ride back into work after two weeks off, Milo now needed a break, and Sarah brought to light a new concept to me for lifting his back. She had me try simply squeezing with my inner calf, and while holding my lower leg lightly on him, making sure that my seatbones came more up and away from the saddle. This was not me lifting myself entirely out of the tack, it was engaging my inner leg to lift my weight up off of him and sit really tall and light. Instantly, my horse lowered his head and lifted his back. I now could make sense of all of those instances where Sarah told me to lighten my seat to allow Milo to lift up underneath me. But, it was hard work.
She had me experiment with it at the walk, tightening my inner thigh and allowing Milo to come up into the tack, and only asking with my spur if there was no response. But it was totally evident that there was a significant response to just my leg. We picked it up to the trot, and Milo moved beautifully. There were some instances where he needed my spur again, but even Sarah remarked how freely his hips were swinging. It was clearly beneficial for him, just taxing work for me. Just another thing to think about now! Sheesh! I know, I know, in time it will become second nature, much like my neutral position now.
Sarah then had me stop Milo, back up while taking my weight off of him and sitting up tall, then transfer that same lift and elevation into the outside rein, loading the outside hock, then walking off again. "See where I'm going with this?" she asked. I did - we were going to work on lope departure. I find it slightly amazing that I get a level of dread thinking about working on it, but at the same time know that it needs to be worked on. It is just difficult to piece all the information together and allow my body to allow Milo's body to move properly.
After a few repetitions of the back exercise, Sarah instructed that when that moment was right, and Milo was on the outside rein with hock loaded, to ask for the lope depart. The first time wasnt horrible, and wasnt phenomenal, but good. I had serious issues with getting him to round up and keep moving forward. He tried to take my spur direction as one to slow down, not to lift up. But naturally, the problem was coming from me as I was unengaged in my own core, and not riding with that lighter seat, allowing Milo to lift into the tack. Once that was addressed, and I worked my abs and thigh, Milo started to come up over his back.
We then took this into the counter canter work to start developing him for the lead change again, and building strength in the hock, while suppling it and his spine. This was the same work I had been working on with Wesley, so I now knew what the correct feel was that I was aiming for. From a balanced canter circle, I would drive him straight into the new outside rein, then torso twist in my body as needed to encourage him to stay on the counter canter. The first attempt was difficult, but soon we both started to get it, and as I allowed my horse to come into my light seat, we had some nice counter canter work, with lateral hip steps as well. I sat deep for a stop, which wasnt perfect on my part - too much of the lean back and braced back again. But Milo stopped deep and down, Sarah even said his hind feet were almost tracking ahead of the fronts. And thats the angle of his leg placement, not the length of a slide. Thats a pretty deep stop!
Sarah let us both have a walk break, and we both needed it. Once we caught our breath, Sarah had us develop the new outside rein and repeat that back exercise as needed to prepare Milo for the lope departure work in the new direction. It was difficult for the both of us, and Milo would brace his jaw against the bit and bulge the outside shoulder out. Sarah instructed me to counter bend him by taking his nose to the inside and bump with the inside spur to encourage him to step his shoulder laterally away. It took multiple tries until finally I quit collapsing my side, and Milo finally opened up his shoulder and stepped it over his outside leg. We repeated it a few times, then got back to preparing for the lope departure. With the much needed shoulder awareness, I felt we were almost ready for the lope work.
Then Milo realized for the first time that someone was sitting in the viewing porch next to the arena. He had been sitting there watching the entire time, but now moved slightly and Milo was entirely aware of his presence, now side stepping away from him and puffing, quite concerned.
It did effect our performance in the right lead now, because not only was Milo anticipatory of that length of the arena, but I was now becoming tense in my body, and tired, and was not allowing him to lift up into the tack. But we worked through it, and were finally able to get a balanced lope on the outside rein. Milo was tired and as we attempted the counter canter, he repeatedly tried to break or change leads. Sarah addressed me again to soften my seat and instead of driving my spur into him, to just tap it.
Preparing for another balanced canter, then across the figure eight and into the counter canter, I torso twisted, lifting my body and staying soft on my outside rein, lightly tapping Milo's hip out from my spur, we finally got an entire counter canter circle without break downs, or excessive driving from me.
As always, the softer I stay in my body, the more I engage in myself, the better my horse performs. Who knew riding was so difficult. But those Aha moments and the feel of a balanced and beautiful lope sure make it all worthwhile. Just tell that to my sore body now.