This week I got to ride Debbie's new Arab, Mick, twice. Such a nice horse, so pretty, nice shoulder, good neck, well trained, obedient, and with a good attitude. Still he is not perfect. Riding him I feel less power under me than I do with Mia and Cider. Part of the reason for this is however well trained Mick is, somehow the previous trainers and riders did not do the gymnastic work necessary to strenthen Mick's hind end, and when I look past his sheer beauty I see that he is very close behind and that his hindquarters are not well muscled. Back when I was less disabled and when I had easy access to hills this would not be a problem, a few months of first walking up and down the hills, then trotting up the hills and walking back down, are virtually a sure guarantee for strengthening a horse's hindquarters. After a month or two the horse's muscles get stronger and he ends up enjoying going up fast. No problem at all. Alas, I get exhausted too quick nowadays, and besides the land at Debbie's stable is flat, flat, flat.
During my lesson on Wednesday, even after taking off the nose band rein on my Spirit Bridle and riding mostly on slack reins, Mick went with his head drooped low, with his neck 'broken' at the third vertebrae. Most of the time there was no push from the hind hoof to the rein, in fact my seat did not feel much of a push either. Mia pushes harder with her hind legs, Mia who is around thirty and has an occult spavin, manages to push from the hind hoof into the rein. Yes, she was soooo weak that it took me a few months of riding her just 30 min. to 1 hour a week before she could do this, but ever since she has properly taken up proper contact in obedience to the urging of my legs. Mick is nowhere as weak as Mia was when I started riding her, Mick is sound in the hocks, but somehow this all important lesson of sending energy into the reins was neglected. Mick's walk had NO impulse no matter how much leg I used (not much, I get tired quickly), and his trot was little better. All this time Mick was perfectly willing to move forward, obedient to both hand and leg, springing promptly from the walk into the trot, it is just that the little extra push I am used to just was not there. Combine this lack of push from the hindquarters with the neck 'broken' at the third vertebrae means that my legs were always asking for impulse and not getting it. Could it be that Mick had so much impulse when he was trained that the impulse was trained right out of him? Mick should be a power house compared to Mia, instead Mia is a power house compared to Mick, at least at the speeds I ride. Apparantly Mick does better in the group lessons when it is more exciting because there are other horses moving around him, but alone in the ring--no way.
On Friday I had my first ride on Mick without Debbie around. Mick was not terribly sure about me without Debbie around, but he cooperated with my son when groomed and tacked up. He even stood perfectly still when I had to lengthen my adjustable girth. Again he stood perfectly still when I mounted and waited for my signal to move off. Mick at least is perfectly schooled at staying put until his rider tells him to move. So we moved off at a walk, with me urging with my legs every step, then we moved into a trot, again with me having to urge every step. Then I stopped and thought. Mick is getting ridden several times a week in group lessons, lots of trotting, cantering and jumping. I can rely upon the other riders to build up Mick's wind and endurance, the things that I can't do. This leaves me at perfect liberty just to work on strengthening Mick's back and hind quarters. You see I deeply believe that if a horse does not have a good, impulsive and free striding walk that there is not much point in working hard at the faster gaits, except for building wind and endurance. When in a good free striding walk the horse uses all his body, especially his back. As I get Mick's back loosened up his legs will start swinging like pendulums which results in a free striding walk. When the hind legs swing like pendulums the whole hindquarter gets worked, muscles get stretched then contracted, and over time the muscles get bigger and stronger while still being able to stretch out. ALL of this starts with an active and freely swinging back. Well Mick's back does not swing much at all now.
So I worked on the three speeds of the walk, with occasional turns on the hindquarters, turns on the forehand and back ups. While I walked I went both straight and I also wended my way around the jumps, encouraging first flexion on one side of his body, then the other. Mick finally got the idea of the really slow walk, on a very light rein with very light hand aids he got slow enough so I also had to urge with my legs, and I finally got the feeling of asking and getting one step at a time. Then we would go into a regular walk, with me using my alternating legs both to ask for a longer stride and to encourage Mick to start swinging his back. After a few minutes of this I started asking for an extended walk giving some light support with my reins. And finally, when I used my spurs lightly, Mick's head and neck started coming up! After a few strides I went back to the regular walk, Mick is NOT USED TO CARRYING HIS HEAD UP, he is having to use new muscles in his neck and back to carry his head up, and it is going to take more than one ride to end up where I want Mick to go.
Tincture of time.
Lots and lots of time. Lots and lots of walking. Constantly asking for Mick to bring his hind legs forward under his body. Accepting his first attempts at what I want without presuming that just because he does what I want once that he is capable of doing it all the time. Backing off after a few strides whenever he moves off, and massaging his crest to ease his sore neck muscles. This is almost pure leg work, in fact the reins don't come into it much until the extended walk, and then the reins just give light support.
Halfway through the walk work Mick started reaching out (a little) and down into contact. I kept contact for around 1/4 of the ring and then, since his head had not come up, more leg work. The contact is nice but nice contact is not the be all and end all of riding. Proper contact is, contact with the horse's head up so he can see all around him, with each hind leg giving a definite push. All I can do now is have faith in my system of horsemanship (Forward Seat), faith in the good effects of the Spirit Bridle, faith that my Corrector pad will make Mick's back comfortable enough so he will relax it into a swing, and faith that Mick, an Arab, is born to MOVE properly. I do not know if I will have enough time with Mick to make a real difference, but I expect if I ride him a few more weeks that his back will start swinging at a walk. Getting a gently swinging back at the sitting trot will take longer, and I know it won't come until I can get that swing at a walk. Then I will have to work a good bit at the sitting trot to get the swinging back in that gait. Lots and lots of time, lots and lots of patience, this is a formula that works for me. There is truly no quick way to my goal of Mick moving properly, at least to where he moves properly to MY satisfaction.
Today I got to ride Cider. Since I got my Wintec Wide saddle I have remembered why I was so determined never to own a wide backed horse again once Susi left my farm. Nowadays my balance is a lot worse and I have problems keeping centered, from side-to-side, in the saddle. I am having to strengthen my leg muscles gradually, and whenever I do the jumping position (2-point) I really feel it in my thigh muscles. On Cider I have to work on strengthening MY hindquarters! I am also working on lengthening my inner thigh muscles so my knees will go down. I feel like I am trying to do splits. But until I get my knees down I will have no hope of keeping centered in the saddle. I am also switching my attention to my seat bones, trying to find that wonderful center of the saddle. More walking, but now it is just for my benefit, I taught Cider how to move properly years ago. It was easy with Cider, she had never been taught to curl her head down and go on the forehand, all I had to do with her was encourage her to lengthen her stride. If I was ever able to buy and support another horse that horse would have to have a regular back, not one almost as flat as a table. But since I have to ride other people's horses I am just grateful that I can get up on a horse, whatever the shape of their back. Besides Cider, the energizer bunny, is fun to ride, she's got plenty of forward impulse and is eager to prove it every ride.
Tincture of time. If you are a good rider it works every time.
Have a great ride!