Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Back in the Saddle

I rode Starbuck yesterday for the first time since last week's disaster and it went really well!  I was a little (ok, a lot) apprehensive for two reasons - first she was pretty crazy when I longed her on Monday and second I was trying out the new bit (a mullen-mouthed pelham) my instructor Marina suggested to me.  I hadn't ridden Starbuck with a bit since we had that longeing incident a year and a half ago, and the pelham can be a lot more severe than the D-ring snaffle I started her in, not to mention the little hackamore I usually use.  So I wasn't sure whether to expect better responsiveness, a bucking bronco display or anything else in between, but I guess I got lucky because I ended up with a focused, thinking mare who consistently responded very well to even the lightest rein aids.

Before I go into details let me get my guilt and feelings of inadequacy as an owner-trainer out of the way.  I'm not terribly happy about the fact that I've changed bits instead of working through the bolting issues Starbuck's been starting to have lately.  I realize that the pelham can cause a great deal of pain if I'm not very, very careful.  And I'm well aware that her problems are in fact caused by my problems.  But I've become a little more skeptical of hackamores since Starbuck's "learned how" to set her head and "flip" one side so it doesn't affect her at all and a friend's hackamore (same model as mine, and newer) basically came apart while she was riding the other day.  And my goal is to use the pelham for a couple of months as a tool to accustom Starbuck once again to listen to really light rein aids even when freaking out, so we can safely return to the hackamore and even eventually be able to ride her in nothing more than a halter (right now she runs right through the halter).  So keeping in mind that right now I really want to keep riding her (safely) as often as I can, that I (and my instructor) consider myself to have pretty soft hands and above all that Marina knows WAY more about horses than I do, it's something I'm on board with.

Back to our lesson yesterday  - she first realized something was very different when we were warming up at a walk and she reached her nose down to rub it on her leg and bumped herself with the bit, at which she instantly shot her head back up and then did a little lick and chew.  Maybe this is too much anthropomorphism but I think it makes a huge amount of difference that this "initiation" was completely on her part, like walking into an electric fence, instead of it being "my fault" by pulling on the reins or similar.  I think that this may have been enough to give her a healthy respect for the bit, because she didn't pull or lean on my hands at all and consistently responded when I simply closed my fingers to ask her to slow down or stop.  The only difference I noticed from her normal behavior was more of a tendency to stop when doing sitting trot, although the fact that we were leading the class instead of following other horses may have had something to do with it.  During our first canter she definitely did a little head shaking and bit chomping, but I focussed on keeping my hands still and low and using only the lightest contact and she settled right down.  I actually think having something new inside her mouth kept her thinking and paying attention to me much more than she normally does, and a quick squeeze and release of the inside hand was enough to keep her from her normal "looking outside the ring for tigers" antics.  And when we could have had a spook (kids playing around near the bar with the pigs squealing for their supper) and she jumped in place, when I closed my fingers she just gave a lazy little piaffe for a few steps and then dropped her head like "OK, no problem".

Anyhow, after a decent warm-up we did an exercise where we first walked and then trotted over some ground poles while leg yielding, then we did an exercise where we had to leg yield from a cone to the other side of a pole, then walk straight along the pole, then leg yield in the other direction to another pole, walk straight along the other pole and then leg yield back around a final cone. Think dot space dash space dash space dot, zigzagging laterally between each one.  We did this in walk and trot and finally canter, and surprisingly she did really well at all except when cantering on the right lead which is always tricky for her.  And at the very end of the lesson I felt comfortable enough to do a little jump, just to prove to ourselves that it's no big deal.

So firmly back in the saddle and confident about our progress, even if by using a bit we have to take a few steps back to take one step forward.

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