Then on the trail ride the other day René asked me why I used a backpack instead of saddlebags and I explained it to him and he said "Well I have like 3 sets of saddlebags I don't ever use - why don't you take one of them?" I politely refused in case he got second thoughts, but he insisted so I finally gratefully agreed to use his until I get some of my own. Suddenly, saddlebags!
On Monday I wanted to give her a break from riding and decided to kill two birds with one stone, so I saddled Starbuck up, tied on the saddlebags (the "official" straps are missing so I used some strips of leather) and led her into the arena for a little longeing. She was completely unfazed while tacking her up and walking her into the arena, but when she started working in a circle she suddenly started to feel the saddlebags moving around. At a trot she spooked a couple of times when the wind and her movement caused them to flap around a fair amount (I'd left them empty), and then at the canter she gave a few bucks to figure out whether she could get them off or not. But I just ignored all that and asked her for loads of transitions, and before I knew it she was completely used to them. And we had a really productive longe line workout :)
When I untacked her, I made sure to move around the bags a bunch and let them flap around and lifted them up and then dropped them back down on her hindquarters and even between her legs and it didn't bother her at all. But just to make sure, I put them back on her yesterday for our lesson, just so that if she was going to have any residual spooks from the saddlebags flapping against her it would be inside the arena where if she bucked me off or I lost control at least she wouldn't be able to run too far.
And it turns out they are MAGIC saddlebags! Right after I mounted up and started our warm up walk, she dropped her head and relaxed, then when I took up the reins a little for a very light contact and nudged her just a little with my leg to let her know that I wasn't putting on the brakes, she reacted just like I wanted her to and started putting her back into it and tracking up with her hind legs a little more instead of just slowing down and tensing up. Then we did our flex head in - straighten - flex head in - straighten exercise José taught me and today was the first day I could really tell that she understood what I wanted her to do which is drop her head and stretch her neck into the rein contact.
While still in the walk, I also discovered a new and fabulous skill which I was beginning to worry I would never develop which is being able to feel her footfalls through my seat. I actually felt this warming up on Friday afternoon but it was so fleeting that I decided it was just my imagination. But I felt it again yesterday for more time although as soon as I started to think logically about it (comparing what I was feeling with what I know to be the correct walk footfall pattern) I stopped being able to feel it, and then started working on something else and forgot about it. But I'm really excited about this, since if I develop it until I can always feel the footfalls I'll be able to time my aids so that they're much more effective in addition to that "centaur" connection thing.
Then we went into trot and I focused on getting at least a basic steady rhythm without so much starting and stopping... and she gave it to me! With way less leg than is normally necessary and without her signature spooks and charges - it was just like riding a "normal" well trained horse! I worked on "hanging my arms" - this is a posture improving exercise Marina has us working on lately where we take up a light contact, close our fingers on the reins and then just let our lower arms hang between the elbow and the reins, following the horse's movement through the reins and letting the weight of our arms create the contact. I also tried to remember to open my fingers slightly every time I had to nudge her with my legs to encourage her to go forward, and as opposed to what normally happens, it worked! The whole time we were trotting she kept up a really nice working rhythm without too many "reminders" and towards the end even started to relax her poll a little and start working more from behind.
The canter went really nicely as well, with hardly any spooks or bucks which really allowed me to relax and "hang my arms". The jumping part of the lesson didn't go as well - a little zig zagging and hesitation which probably had more to do with me trying ineffectually to relax and push forward at the same time - but she didn't refuse or dodge any of them and our recovery (balance, speed, control, direction...) time after each jump was much quicker than usual. Honestly I don't like these horses (very common at some of the more "competitive" jumping stables) that jump really well but can't do anything else - I'd much rather she did everything else well, even if she's never a terrific jumper.
This pretty much sums it up - after the lesson I told my friend Amanda "Even if she never got any better than she was today and just maintained today's quality of work for the rest of her life, I'd be perfectly fine with that". I mean that - of course I want her to keep improving but she really was that fun to ride yesterday.
And it's all thanks to René and his magic saddlebags! ;)