Humpty Dumpty Learns to Ride
April 26, 2011 Leave a comment
I was channeling Humpty Dumpty last night during my lesson on Oliver, and Christy had to work hard to put me back together again. But she got the job done, and Oliver produced some very nice moments, stretching into contact while almost tracking up, and starting to work over his back.
A key contributing factor to my issues last night was the saddle. Just for fun, I rode in a Stubben Romanus – an old one. It’s the opposite of the saddle I’m used to (a Wintec Isabell). Instead of a deep seat covered in grippy suede, this old Romanus was slick leather, with a much shallower seat. And instead of air-filled panels, the Romanus panels feel like they’re foam-lined and filled with wool flocking. They’re soft, and solid, and lack the shock-absorbing quality of the Isabell.
Christy’s new saddle is also wool-flocked, and she says she can feel a lot more movement in it than in her old Isabell. I tease Christy about being the Princess and the Pea – she feels so much more than I do in the saddle. I think she could read Braille with her butt, frankly. The same cannot be said of me, but riding Oliver – who I’m getting to know fairly well – in the Romanus was an entirely different experience that my usual ride. All of a sudden, I was being bounced out of the saddle at the trot. And while Oliver has nice, solid gaits, he doesn’t produce a lot of suspension. (Yet!) His trot is pretty flat. I wasn’t prepared for this feeling and had to spend some time finding my balance.
Finally – with constant adjustments and encouragements coming from Christy – I started to get it together, and regained some semblance of independent hands which had left me entirely at the beginning of the ride. Humpty Dumpty was patched up.
Something else that helped me get it together was asking Oliver to move forward. This helped me in two ways. First, once I got him going forward – and I was keeping him there – his rhythm improved – a lot. If I let him go at his own pace, he speeds up, then slows down, and then spurts forward again. Keeping him going forward is easier to ride because it cuts down on the variability in speed – and that variability makes it hard to stay balanced. Secondly, the more forward, proper working trot is easier to ride from a balance standpoint. It’s easier to ride when you can use the momentum of the horse’s gaits in your favor.
Once I started to resemble someone with a bit of training rather than a sack of potatoes, Christy had me work on inviting Oliver to really stretch into contact, something that has been on my to-do list for a while, but I’ve not made much progress in this area. She quickly diagnosed the problem – I’ve not been giving enough with my hands.
We’ve discussed “giving hands” before, which is another way to describe following contact, which allows the horse to stretch forward, and can also reward the horse with a decrease in rein pressure for the correct behavior. I commented that Oliver’s unsteadiness in the bridle made it harder for me to give at the right time.
“And that’s why it’s even more important!” was Christy’s response. And she’s right, of course. Oliver is new to dressage, and prior to Steph’s purchasing him, he was ridden in a leverage bit with a tie down. He’ll never learn to go correctly into contact if he doesn’t get good guidance from the person on his back. I redoubled my efforts, trying to keep my hands quiet and the contact steady. Christy reminded me to activate my inside leg, using the spur when necessary to enage Oliver’s inside hind.
“Ride the back end, and leave the front end alone,” Christy suggested. I envisioned side reins, and concentrated on simply holding steady contact on the reins – not messing around with softening or opening or asking for give. I focused solely on keeping the contact quiet and holding on to the outside rein, and got busy with my leg aids.
The improvement was almost immediate. I turned my heel inward, applied a little spur pressure, Oliver stepped neatly aside with his hind leg and his neck lengthened.
“Give give give give GIVE!” Christy commanded. “Again!” We repeated the exercise, and I finally reacted quickly enough to get a nice stretch into contact for a few strides, after which I stopped riding, whereupon he hollowed his back and popped his head up. You really do need to ride every stride. We repeated the process several times, going each way. At the end of the ride, we were both sweaty and puffing.
Oliver is figuring this out – and it gets easier as the horse develops strength and self-carriage. Oliver is just beginning to develop the new muscles necessary to carry himself correctly. It’s fun and challenging to work through these moments with him, and he’s such a pleasant horse to work with. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him develop!