Wesley was hopping and agitated as we loped along the arena wall.
"Do you feel him popping you out of the tack like that?" Sarah asked me.
"Relax your lower back, and your ankles! Think about the beach ball: hold it tight in your core, filling the space in your lower back...slow down the tempo."
Another lap and there was no progress. What was going on?
"Something in your body is driving this horse nuts, Nina," Sarah firmly said, then finished, "Walk. Now."
I did as instructed. "Torso twists. You are all locked up and it is driving this horse bonkers."
Walk and turn, walk and turn. Sarah kept telling me to relax. Start in my ankles, up to my knees, and through my whole body. No matter how hard I tried it didnt seem to be what Sarah was looking for. "Drop your stirrups," she said, "stretch your toes down....move them in small circles, stop equitating them."
I had a really hard time with this. If I was thinking about my ankles, then Wesley wasnt directing where I needed him to be, so I would try and use my leg to keep him forward, or off the outside rein. But Sarah didnt want to see that; "if you need to get impulsion, cluck and move him forward with your body, no leg."
Now how in the heck was I supposed to get him forward without leg? I have always ridden a horse with leg. Was I to expect that Wesley would maintain impulsion from voice alone? When I tried Sarah's way, wouldntyaknow, Wesley maintained forward.
"This looks nice, Nina. Now keep it and, when your ready, go into the trot." The trot was hard as well. I could keep my ankles relaxed for only a mere second or so, and then I would go back to tight. There were so many things to be thinking about, and now we were at the trot, still trotting and turning, trotting and turning. There were moments where my ankles were free and relaxed, but they would rhythmically bump Wesley's sides, and I would instantly tighten them so they did not do that.
Sarah commented that the work looked much better, but I responded that I was uncomfortable with bumping Wesley inadvertently with my spurs. "I feel bad," I said. "Dont feel bad," was the response, "a horse knows when your leg is bumping, relaxed, and in rhythm, and when your spur is applied with purpose behind it." She then went on to add that her leg freely swings in rhythm with her horses, even the babies. They all learn that relaxed leg is nothing to concern about, but a spur with intention is one to abide by.
I tried to let this soak in, and allowed my legs to bump in pace with Wesley. Then it was time to focus on other areas of my body. Trotting and turning, trotting and turning, I was driving him every step of the way. If I wanted him to turn one way, I would rotate my body into the turn first and actually stiffen that side. I needed to be following the movement of the turn, not forcing it. My hand would gently guide his nose one direction and my body held the direction of the other for just a split second before his body would move the new direction. As Sarah put it, there is a slight moment where his head is turned, but not his body. Follow the body not the head.
Sarah reminded me that this work was not a forceful work. It was work that allowed the horse to free up in the front end and loose any tightness. I needed to allow the body to move, particularly the spine. My tenseness was inhibiting free motion on the spine, particularly scaring Wesley especially when we had been loping. I immediately thought to Milo, and the last couple rides I had on him where I forced him around in the work. Guilt ran through me. This was most certainly why we were having problems last week and I felt I needed a lesson with him ASAP. Again, the problem was coming from me, not my horse. It was a humbling moment.
"When you are ready, and Wesley is balanced in the outside rein with a slight tip of the nose to the inside, as for the lope." The first attempt yielded no departure, as I did not actually have him on the outside rein. I also tensed in my legs and ankles as I tried to wrap my leg around him for the cue. That clearly did not work. So this time when he was actually on the outside rein, I just barely let my leg fall back and smooched for the lope. Wesley stepped right into it, but was a little rushed and frantic. At the lope, there was no way I could maintain everything and still try and rotate my ankle. It just wasnt happening. But then Sarah had me try the strangest thing.
She told me to point my toes straight out away from the tack a foot or so, then lift my knees.
"What? I dont understand what I'm supposed to be doing," I said, as we loped past and I flopped around like a fish.
"Just raise your knees up towards your shoulders away from the tack."
Sheesh, easier said than done. What I seemed to manage to do only resulted in a huge amount of tension on the top of my feet as I tried to hold my knees up while loping on a horse. I voiced the tension I was feeling. "Keep your ankles relaxed," was the response. Wtf? This was an instant reaction to having to hold my knees up. Well, apparently I was still not doing it correctly. My knees needed to not only come up from the saddle, but away from the saddle.
I flopped my knees to the right position but there was no way in hell that I could hold it. "There you go," Sarah said. That was what you wanted??? That crazy spasmic fish flopping? She said that the goal was to relax my hamstring muscle.
But wouldn't you know, when my hamstring was relaxed, when my legs were flopping and bumping Wesley in rhythm, when I was strong in my core and holding Wesley with the outside rein, Wesley loped a beautiful circle, in his bad direction.
"Now, I want you to think about what happened here," Sarah said. And the lesson was over.