Sarah took the snake exercise one step further with Milo and I Sunday. Although different from the snake exercise, it has similar qualities in that there are serpentines involved, but much more so in just the head oscillation we were going for in the snake. This new exercise was not given a name, but it's purpose is to open the shoulder and allow Milo to release the tension he is still holding over his shoulders and at his withers. It is another key to unlocking that very tight and protected area for Milo. The bulges over his shoulders are reducing in size, but this next element should really help him lift at the wither and stay soft and supple through the shoulder, neck, head and body.
With Milo's head turned to one side with just the inside rein (I was not allowed to support him with the outside rein), and mind you this is a soft feel, allowing Milo to keep his head down and soft but bent around, Sarah had me walk small but forward circles and abruptly change directions and repeat the other way. The purpose was not to get a perfect circle, in fact, many times we did not complete an entire circle before changing back the other direction. The purpose was to open up the shoulder area for Milo by going from one extreme bend right into the other.
We increased this to the trot and repeated it all, making the circles tighter and more challenging as time progressed. As Milo did well, we could go off pattern for a bit - trot a large circle, go a little on the rail, then come back to the exercise. Milo was starting to feel really soft and loose, and I was even feeling that "knock" right as Milo hit straight, then turned to the other direction as Sarah had described the feel to me.
Next it was time to hit the lope. Now, all week long I have been trying to keep my legs and ankles relaxed in the right position (just behind the girth with toes easily pointing forward, not out), so I was a little concerned that I might get tight because this exercise made me think instead of being able to focus on my ankles so much. I never did hear any reminders from Sarah to stay soft so they must have been ok.
It was interesting as we tried the circles and bending at the lope because when we would come off pattern to a circle, the basic circle was where Milo would fall apart. But finally it seemed to make sense to me how the exercise was actually supposed to be worked, and there was a moment where I thought I needed to change outside rein back and forth as needed as we went from counter canter to regular and vice versa. In reality what I really needed to be doing was staying consistent with the true outside rein, even on the counter canter. What I really needed was to "stop being so nice" as Sarah put it, and instead of just guiding Milo through the serpentine, I needed to get a real bend just as we were getting at the trot. I also needed to half halt as needed, but not get heavy in my hands.
So as I came along the long side again, I stayed consistent with my outside rein and got a true bend in the counter canter, and instead of just applying rein pressure, I gave a real half halt. The serpentine was beautiful and just as we came out of the corner my horse loped beautifully. No two men in a horse suit here and no scrambling. It was great. We worked the other direction as well and I got what I was supposed to feel on the other lead too.
To solidify the exercise more, on Monday after I was done cleaning Sarah's stalls, I was able to take a little time and work one of her rehab horses, Joe, on the same exercise. At a higher degree of difficulty, it was fascinating to see from the ground how the exercise was executed and also the results that were shown in Joseph.
I approached my ride that afternoon with no expectations, but knowing this circle and bending exercise was going to be what we worked on exclusively for the next week or so. At the walk and trot, Milo was great. As we moved into the lope, I was aware that I didnt have to fight to keep my ankles relaxed or in the new position. They stayed soft easily and in fact, Milo stepped into our lope very nicely and I enjoyed a nice lope around the rail before getting to work on the exercise again. Milo felt great, and all the pieces were falling into place, I couldnt help but smile and laugh to Milo - this exercise was actually fun. And when I went off pattern and loped a circle, there wasnt a single thing I felt I needed to adjust. It was the kind of feel good ride that reminds us why we ride. No elaborate flying lead changes or patterns, but my horse trying hard for me in an exercise that is very difficult to do. And then to do well at it as well. Just gave me those warm fuzzies.