Monday, September 24, 2012

Asking for help

So...yes, I have switched instructors three times now since January. The first was just due to me moving, and I alluded to the second switch in my most recent post about Shadow and his bulgey-shoulder-itis. I'm thinking this instructor might be the one, at least for now. I think it makes the most sense for me to be riding horses that aren't Level 3 dressage horses--those lessons were fun and I did learn, but it's not the most useful for me right now because none of the other horses I ride have training anywhere near that level! Remember my post about "Counter-bending to Connection"? Yeah...that doesn't work on horses that haven't been trained up the levels, as I found out.


Anyway, on to the lesson:

This instructor is VERY HAPPY.  She's been teaching at the barn where I ride Shadow for a few months now, and at first I was a little bit unnerved by how animated she is when she gives a lesson. She uses some creative methods like getting lessoners to tell her about what they ate for lunch to trick them into relaxing, and she does a lot of question-and-answer rather than just telling. I wasn't sure if that was my style. But once I saw her ride her big chestnut, I realized she knew her stuff. He was totally attuned to her, but relaxed, swingy, and reaching for the bit. I wanted to learn how to do THAT on a horse who didn't already know it.

And that's where Shadow enters the picture.
This is the one good shot I got of Shadow--it's hard to photograph a black horse!
He's a little guy, maybe 15 hands or so, and 15 years old. He has nooo problem stretching down--as a former Western horse, he's happy to just plod around downhill with his neck parallel to the ground. So that's what we worked on in the lesson--feeling when he was on the forehand, and then shifting the weight back so that he got closer to using his front end 50% and his back end 50% rather than 75% in the front  and 25% in the back (which is what he prefers as a big-shouldered former Western horse).

I've been told to "pick up" the horse by two of the h/j instructors I've had, but I never really understood what that meant until now. She had me using my legs from the hip to the heel to "lift" the horse up into my hand. Then once we got forward by doing that, she asked me to feel where his center of balance was. Where was he carrying his weight? Most of the time it was right under his withers, and I tried to shift it back under the saddle by keeping his hind legs moving (with alternating legs at the walk, and squeezes at the trot). Then once I had the hind legs going, I leaned back (very slightly) into dressage mode and just kept the rein contact the same so that I wasn't pulling--I was just moving the whole thing backward. It really worked.

Another thing she is having me work on is feeling the horse's mouth--not by taking a hold of his mouth, but by trying to feel what his tongue is doing. I felt it once or twice during the lesson last week (though it wasn't easy) and once again today when I rode Shadow. This is a totally new concept for me--I have never paid attention on that level to the hand-mouth connection before.

She said that although right now I lack "feel," I have quiet, respectful hands. That made me go "eeeee!!!" inside because I'm used to compliments from instructors being like a drop of water in the desert--and in the first lesson!  I'm taking it with a grain of salt since she is such a positive, bubbly person. I don't want to just assume my hands are always going to be good and then stop thinking about them.

Another high point was our brief cantering session--normally he is very rushy at the canter, but by "picking him up" into the canter and then shifting his weight back, I got one stride of beautiful uphill canter. We ended on a long rein after that and I let him connect with his Western side again with some neck reining. Love cooling out a horse that knows how to neck rein.

So I was thrilled with the lesson since this seems like stuff I can actually apply to the drafts. We have two former star lesson horses who haven't been in work and are now wild things, and I REALLY need to get working with them. So on Sunday, I taught a lessoner how to longe the one she used to ride, Remington, and then after lessons I chose my next victim...Rurik. What is it about Percherons?!

Rurik's issue is that he bulges out his shoulder when you're about a quarter of the way around a circle, and then no matter how hard you kick him with the outside leg, or even spur or smack him with a crop, he just contorts his neck to the inside while his body careens over to the other end of the ring. I was able to get him moving forward more than usual this Sunday after my lesson with Shadow, but he still was doing his obnoxious circle thing. Very frustrating, and after riding him a few times and having no clue how to fix it, I was just getting frustrated with him rather than with his problem.  I asked another volunteer who was riding in the ring with me for advice. He asked if he could get on and feel what Rurik was doing.

Sometimes the best thing is to set your pride aside and let someone else take the reins (literally).

So of course at first, Rurik did the exact same thing that he does to me. Then the volunteer got off to grab his dressage whip. After he got back on and tried the circle again, he smacked Rurik behind the saddle (on the outside) immediately when he started to bulge, then put on his leg to reinforce. That kind of worked--the circle got smaller (as in, it took up somewhere between a third and a half of the ring instead of the entire ring. Then he tried the circle again, this time smacking behind his leg. Again, it kind of worked. He just kept trying again and again until Rurik got it that there would be hell to pay if he started to bulge, and the circle got smaller. Eventually, once he started tapping on Rurik's outside shoulder and then asking with the leg, he got it. Beautiful 20-meter circle.

What I was doing wrong was asking with leg first and then artificial aids. That's always what I was taught--use your own aids before an artificial one. But I see why Rurik understood the other way better. The artificial aid was the "new thing" that he had to figure out. Then once he understood that he was supposed to move away from that artificial aid, and he felt the leg right after the whip every time, he associated the leg with that aid and started to respond to just that (with a tap on the shoulder every now and again when he forgot his lesson). Just plain old operant conditioning.

It is humbling when someone else can solve a problem in 10 minutes that you've been struggling with for weeks...especially when you're supposed to be the instructor. But I think it just took someone who wasn't already frustrated, and could actually think it through. I don't know everything, not even close--so it's better to "embarrass" myself by asking for help through many sources than to embarrass myself by just letting the schoolies turn feral.

I'm feeling much better about this bulging issue with my lesson and with Rurik's little training session. I hope it will stick in his little pea brain, but we'll see. I'll keep you all posted (with pictures...I know you all need your fat-butt draft fix).

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