After all, we *are* training war horses here …

Oliver's first ride outside

I can’t claim the hilarious line that I used for this post’s title.  It appeared to great guffaws on one of the dressage discussion boards I frequent.  But when it appeared months ago while I was still riding Maddie it got me thinking about dealing with a distracted horse.

The historical roots of dressage are in fact based in the military training.  And it’s not difficult to imagine the utility of a highly responsive mount that is forward and willing when riding into battle.   A leg yield may very well evolved as a means to get a better angle for wielding one’s broadsword.

Christy and I talked about this one night when Mads was being a handful.  I had discovered – either by serendipity or accident – that riding a cloverleaf pattern of small (12m or so) loops was a great way to refocus the mare’s attention on me.   This was an important lesson for me – I learned that I had a lot more control over spooky situations than I thought I did.  I learned that if I just sat up and really rode, I could get through the mare’s moments.

There are a few reasons why this works, Christy explained.  First and foremost, horses look for leaders.  When you take charge unequivocally, you assert yourself as the leader, and the horse is very likely be happy to be relieved of the decision-making, and to follow willingly along.   Conversely, when you abdicate the leadership role to the horse, you also abdicate the decision-making to a lower-order animal who thinks that flight is a great solution to most problems.

Secondly, Christy noted that when I sat up and rode, I went from being more passive to being a  very active rider, truly riding every stride.  When I watch Christy, I can see that she’s riding every moment, every stride, constantly testing her connection, bending, softening, giving, taking, half-halting, driving — she’s never just cruising along. Riding every stride is something that I don’t yet do with consistency.  And it’s  a key differentiator between a good rider and one that’s less effective.  When I have had these moments, Christy has told me that I’ve never looked better – that the mare’s back was up, she was rounded and engaged end-to-end.  And I remember how good that felt – how that big mare transformed into a Ferrari, nimble and responsive.

These experiences and conversations gave me tools that I use frequently when dealing with a looky horse, and they came in handy yesterday when I took Oliver for his first ride outside in the outdoor arena.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day, breezy enough to keep bugs away.  Oliver was really good as I mounted and we walked around. However, I wasn’t letting him just dink aroud on a loose rein.  We started with stretching and bending, and walked in serpentines and circles to warm up, and get familiar with the surroundings.   For a while we were alone in the ring (though there is a turn-out right next to the ring, so we weren’t truly alone) and Oliver was a champ.  We kept working on stretching (and I focused on giving giving giving at the right moment) and Oliver really did well.

Bending, and staying on the bit. Good boy!

Some others came back outside just as we picked up a trot.  Oliver decided to do a tiny spook at the mounting block, which was ridiculous, and earned himself a smack on the butt with the crop, and trotting in the deeper sand.  Off we went, circling and working our way around the ring.  Determined to not let him get away with that monkey business, I really rode him – doing lots of bending and flexing, and keeping as on the bit and round as I could.  He tried to look at the mounting block again, but complied when I applied my inside spur and kept the outside rein firm.  He was more worried about the poles in far corner of the ring, so we spent some time working down there, halting near them, and eventually eating some dandelions from Christy’s boyfriend’s hand as we stood in that corner.

My assertive riding  was done with keeping looking and spooking to a minimum in mind – I really wanted Oliver to have a nice, confident, pleasant ride outside – but it came with another benefit.  I got better quality work from Oliver than I ever have.  Hopefully we’ll get some pictures – Peaches was out with her girls and they had a camera.  I’m eager to see what we looked like because it really felt good!

About Sarah Skerik
Sarah Skerik is an experienced digital business executive and strategist with a long track record of success in team leadership, employee development, marketing and business development.

3 Responses to After all, we *are* training war horses here …

  1. Steph says:

    Hmm, maybe I should start carrying one of my swords to keep us focused… lol

    I don’t know what it is with that horse and poles though. I need to channel my inner Sarah when I ride him to keep him focused!

  2. Steph says:

    And now that there are pictures, I’m extremely jealous. Just so you know.

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