I have a confession to make.... I rode today. And it was glorious.
I didn't go out to the farm with the intent to ride, but just to long rein Owen. But when I arrived there I found the ring to be totally covered in snow, and I didn't fancy trying to keep up with him long reining out in the field. It was too beautiful a day to not mess with him, so I figured it was worth a try to mount up and dug out my ancient Wintec Aussie saddle with the poleys and Jesus strap that I use for breaking young and/or stupid equines. It looks like hell but rides well, and I wore a helmet and a neck brace just in case.
Fortunately, I had no need for any safety equipment since Owen went like an old hack. Once I mounted up I felt an amazing feeling of peace and calm come over me, and we headed down to a flat area in the lower corner of one of our hay fields that I enjoy schooling in...it also has the advantage of not being visible from the house, because I didn't want to get caught!
Those of you are dressage purists may want to avert your eyes...I excavated an ancient set of chains from my saddle seat days and buckled them onto Owen's front feet. I'm not trying to go for too much artifice, but Owen just doesn't want to use any more energy than is necessary, and he has this annoying habit of tripping over any branch on the trail. Today he lifted his front feet nicely, but instead tripped with his back end!
I was hoping that the chains would add some expression to his passage, and did not plan to do any canter work in them, but I found they helped marvelously in the pirouettes because they slowed the cadence of his canter and made him carry more weight on his hind end.
Despite our hiatus, our session went very well, and I ended up working him pretty hard. I found him to be rather heavy when tracking left and someone reluctant to bend. He would bend if I used enough force with my hand but wouldn't hold it when I released the rein, which makes it fake. From the ground I suppose it looks fine but it's a fine point that is not acceptable to me. I insist that my horses bend from my inside leg not hand. I found a lot of trot halt trot work as well as canter halt canter worked very well. If he was heavy on the inside rein I made him stop and then leg yielded him to the outside until he was soft, at which point I let him go forward again. I also stopped him if his canter transitions were not absolutely perfect...and by the time we were finished he would pick up a lovely soft canter just off my squaring my shoulders and weighting the outside seat bone. For me this is very important in preparing him for his sidesaddle work, since we work mostly off weight aids aside.
I also had to work on the purity of the canter to the left, since he was slamming down his diagonal pair instead of each beat having a similar intensity. This indicated that he was not using his left hind leg enough and was allowing his fore foot to land slightly ahead of the hind; by positioning him slightly in a shoulder in I was able to make him step under more with his inside hind and therefore carry himself better. I was hoping to work on the changes, but although I threw one in here or there, we really shouldn't be attempting them much until the canter quality is improved.
I know that many dressage people seem to think that firm contact is correct contact, and that Hilary Clayton has published studies stating that 5 lbs per hand is ideal, but I like a very soft contact with a bit of droop in the reins, even in the piaffe and passage. This is partly because of my neurological difficulties, since I have trouble holding the reins, but also because of our sidesaddle aspirations. You may have a firmer seat aside, but you lack the leg to drive the horse forward into the bit, and this can result in a blocked jaw. It may look steady, but heaven help you if you need to change the bend or flexion. If a horse is blocked in the jaw he's likely heavy on the forehand, making graceful aids and transitions difficult. I like my horses to rely on my weight aids alone whenever possible. The horse should be reaching for the contact, not have you insist on it by pulling back.
After our schooling session we headed out for a short trail ride, which was rather muddy. There were a lot more trees down today and I jumped Owen over a fair number ("jumped" is a kind word...it was more like Owen flinging himself over, legs akimbo) but there was one that had a thick vine hanging down over it, making a real horse trap. I sidepassed Owen up to it, grabbed the vine with both hands and gave it a mighty tug to bring it down from the tree it was wrapped around. I then coiled it like a lariat and hung it on a low branch, Owen standing quietly all the while. Then I just pivoted him and he stepped calmly over the now cleared log, and I thought to myself, "I LOVE THIS HORSE!"
When we reached flat suitable places I worked on piaffe/passage transitions, which got increasingly expressive the closer to the barn we got. Toward the end I was able to ride the passage with the reins in one hand and my whip held upright, like the old dressage masters. We were able to do all of this in a plain snaffle bridle with no noseband...and lots of cookies!
Tomorrow, we break out the Manorgrove...