Lessons 19 & 20 - Two Very Different Days
Lesson 19: Disrespect
Today was a lesson I’m very glad happened, even though it was a bit challenging.
I walked into today’s lesson with an awful lot of questions regarding the new ‘buttons’ and behaviors I was seeing in Dragon over the past three days. I was also really hoping that she would display some of the behavior from Sunday so that I could ask Jill about it in more depth. I was proud of myself for managing to push her past the ‘fake spook’, but suspected that dealing with it as gently as I did meant that I hadn’t really dealt with it in the long term, and I was a little worried it would hit the next time I was riding alone with her.
Thankfully (?) Dragon was happy to oblige my desire to get Jill to see the behavior in a lesson.
I got the same ‘fake spook’ - though only the refusal, not the bit of jumping - the very first time I turned down the quarter-line after warm up. I went to circle her back around, but apparently this is far too gentle to really deal with what I’m seeing. According to Jill, what I’m now seeing is has grown up into flat-out disrespect/boundary pushing behavior.
So the first part of the lesson was dealing with that. This comprised essentially of trying to push her to actually walk past the ‘spook’ item. Admittedly, I’ve seen Dragon genuinely spooked at this point, and even I could tell the difference in how she was acting. But this didn’t prevent this from being probably the most interesting period of riding I’ve yet encountered. Jill ideally wanted me to force her to go forward, despite her refusals - but if I couldn’t manage that, at least force the direction of the refusal to change and then bring her back around. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite up to the task of forcing her forward (though I could at least manage pulling her around) so Jill ended up having to lead her from the ground up to the problem area the first time through (and even with that she was being a brat). Meanwhile, I was finally getting nervous enough myself (I was worried she would rear. Mind you I don’t believe this horse ever rears - but knowing that intellectually and feeling safe as she shifts her weight back are two different things). I had to keep forcing my body from taking on the dreaded ‘beginner perching’ position where my shoulders roll in and I lose my heels. I did manage to get my heels back down solidly (whew) but I had to consciously fight to keep my back straight. Eventually I just told myself today was as good a day as any to fall off a horse I suppose, and that actually helped me loosen my muscles enough that I could follow through on keeping posture (.. or at least being better). Ironically, for as nervous as I was getting, objectively speaking nothing going on was actually that difficult to ride - erratic and strange, but not actually physically difficult. Taking tight corners at speed, or that thing where she circles rapidly, are actually more challenging from a balance perspective. My concern was far more about what she could do than what she actually did - which was mostly just the sort of refusal you sometimes see when watching eventing in front of an obstacle, except it was about fifteen feet away from some colored fence poles I was asking her to walk next to (not even over).
I managed to force her through on the second pass, though it took more kicking and prodding then I think I’ve ever applied before. Getting her to halt next to the ‘scary’ object wasn’t much worse then her halting can be on a bad day, and after that second pass I was able to focus on things like straightness and not changing pace. Then we basically turned the poles from the problematic jump into ground poles and went over those repeatedly until she was completely smooth. Ironically, she seemed to like them better when we were going over them and by that point was only doing the slightest bit of rushing.
After that she still continued to be a bit of a brat for the rest of the lesson - including one more round of open disobedience when asking for a simple change-of-direction through the arena, but this time this time I was able to work her through it without requiring assistance. I was a little harsher with her than I usually am because every time I gave her an inch she seemed to want to take several feet. We worked over some cavaletti to try to get energy out and I managed to get her solidly under control - but it took very active management and really trapping her between my legs and hands to keep her obedient. ‘Walk on a loose rein’ wasn’t happening.
I also managed to replicate some of the bending/turning strangeness I had been seeing on Thursday/Saturday. Jill says she’s not even sure I’m doing anything actually wrong - though she did go over the position of my head/shoulders in the turn in aiding the horse in realizing we’re turning rather than just creating bend. After that though she says just to use the reins as a correction to turn, because it’s definitely something she should recognize I’m asking for at this point. We’re also going to simplify a little and stop working on the bend-walk-straight work for now since she’s getting hypersensitive to my leg aids to a degree that isn’t actually useful, and this is causing things like the fast circle-and-spin. Simplifying is probably a good direction to go in and making sure I’m not letting her get away with things is important right now since she is testing boundaries so hard.
Instead of doing the traditional cool-down I got a lesson on lunging - the basic commands, as well as explanations on when/why to lunge and how to create different lunge work sequences based on what I’m trying to get out of her. There are a couple different ‘uses’ for lunging as I’m being taught. The first one is that lunging can be used for days where I can just tell in the cross-ties that she is either very nervous or wants an exciting day but I want a calmer one - in this case it’s done as an outlet for some of her energy before I ride her and to ensure she’s fully listening to me - it’s supposed to be nice for her. In this case I warm her up on a long lunge slowly working from walk->trot->canter then working on transitions between the gaits until her she seems calmer, her responses are prompt, and require nothing besides my voice to do transitions. She may be a little rough at the canter at times if she’s really wound up - but that’s really nothing to worry about too much as she lets off steam. Then I do it on the other side - making sure that we end with walk/trot transitions so she’s calm and really listening.
The second use is for handling disrespect when riding. In general I should do my absolute best to push her past whatever the issue is - but then if I want to can be used to regain control and compliance overall in place of a cool-down. In this case I’m going for walk/trot transitions (the canter is fun for her - so no canter) and gaining compliance and obedience. Attitude is different in this case - this type of lunging is about obedience.
Lunging can also be used on its own in place of riding (though not for too long) as a form of general exercise in the same way as I’d do it before a ride - and it might be worth having me come out and do a session or two of practicing lunge work, especially on days where it’s clear just taking up she’s going to be extremely jumpy. The key with this is not to over-do it, as this can be a bit hard on her physically. And in all cases except when I’m really, really having trouble controlling her I should give her as long a lunge line as possible - especially at the canter - so as not to be too hard on her joints.
Overall it was a very educational lesson, and to be honest… even a little fun. I definitely did get nervous, but it never pushed into upset. This is something I’m definitely going to have to learn to deal with, so I was really glad to be able to work it out with Jill there to literally hold the horse as need be.
Lesson 20: USDF Introductory Test A
I could tell before we even left the grooming stall that we were in for a better day today. Dragon was paying attention to me but calm - reacting but not over-reacting. She was in full-on good girl mode.
The warm-up went the same way - a nice forward walk without any power-walking or speeding up. It seemed that our issues were now totally worked out and she was on excellent behavior. I especially loved that she was both reacting to my leg nicely but not over-reacting or wiggling about as she has been. She was a tiny bit fast in some of the gaits… but that I think will always be her on the best of days, and she listened to my requests to slow down.
We spent the first half of the lesson just really reviewing the gaits in a lot of detail, working on crisp transitions, and nitpicking my form. We shortened the stirrups a touch and while it was making it significantly easier to keep my heels down it also affected my balance and I’m now leaning a touch too much forward in general - so we worked on fixing that. My rein positioning is doing much better but I still need to work on keeping my outside rein up a touch more (and honestly, using it more as my break without pulling both reins as my break in turns - though I caught myself doing this more often than Jill did). We also went over the trouble-spots from yesterday just to make sure they wouldn’t cause us any issues again - I had a little bit of a wiggle my first time through the still-laid-out colored poles that were causing us issue before, but she straightened out nicely the second two passes and we seemed good to go.
We did the two sets of cavaletti again. I was too slow through the first time and she actually hit a pole of the second set and stumbled a little - my error. Then I picked a better pace for us the next couple times and we went through smoothly. I actually think this was a little better than my last time doing two sets in a row like this - but the improvement was fairly subtle. It also seems a little easier to post high while keeping heels down with the shortened stirrups.
During all this we chatted quite a bit about Dragon being a pest - what she will and won’t do, my general level in comfort with dealing with her misbehavior, and subsequently even more strategies for dealing with disobedience and boundary testing - especially when I’m alone in the arena. We talked about falling off horses and what to do if it happened when I was alone due to her misbehaving (forcibly taking her to the spot from the ground, followed by lunging). We also talked a bit more about what Dragon will and will not do in terms of acting up. It’s highly, highly, highly unlikely she will ever rear (as I was afraid she might) - but she definitely will threaten and if she really gets going she may crow-hop instead. If this starts getting too crazy and I’m alone with her (or if I come off) then the lead-her-from-the-ground approach along with some very firm handling is entirely appropriate - followed by lunging. It’s better not to start a fight I’m not sure I’ll win, and we can clean it up later if need be (though I should text Jill if I’m not going to be the next person riding her so that whomever her next rider is has warning).
We also spoke more generally about horse misbehavior and boundary pushing, especially with horses that are more willful by nature - as a lot of the horses around here are. We talked about how even well behaved horses can go bad with over-gentle handling and failure to set rules. We also briefly introduced the concepts around riding different sorts of horse misbehavior - mostly in a theoretical ‘this is how this is complicated’ sense and not in the sense of anything I should consider actually attempting at this point in time.
Finally, Jill had me do a called out version of the USDF Introductory Test A. I actually had minor mistake in that I asked for a gait transition too soon, which I then turned into a more serious mistake when I asked her to switch back to the correct gait very shortly thereafter - thus confusing the heck out of her and unintentionally ‘punishing’ her for what was my mistake. We stopped the test, spent a few laps around the arena relaxing, and re-started.
There were also a couple jumps in the way of doing my perfect 20-meter circles. In our home arena the quarter line and 20-meter circles at the ends of the arena are always kept jump-free for just this reason - but in this pure HJ barn I had to make the inside corners of my circle fairly square to avoid running into anything. This bothered me probably far more than it should have.
Overall, it was a nice exercise. I was especially pleased I managed to get a square halt without walking off for the salute. I feel this pretty much confirms what I’ve suspected and that Jill is looking to get me started in Dressage - at least to give me a first thing to work on.