I’ve had a hard time scheduling rides, lessons, and writing since I got back from Australia as I’m living a new work/volunteer/life schedule AND moving houses on top of that. In short, instead of teaching I’m now going to San Francisco to play at the zoo 2+ days a week (though I luckily have friends to stay with in the area between consecutive days), still managing the ranch office (w/ taxes upcoming and irrigation in full swing), and then trying to finish up my thesis and get my work done around the barn and my horse ridden and my boyfriend visited and suddenly I’m living the Megan and L life out of my car.
Murray loves it though. He comes in during the day and eats a little, naps a little, eats a little, naps some more, pushes the dirt around in his paddock to make himself a pillow and re-adjusts for his nap… it’s the life. He’s getting ridden just enough to get himself some attention, and not so much that it feels like work.
I did manage to get in a dressage lesson on Tuesday morning, both to get my trainer’s assessment on yet another dressage saddle that I’ve been riding in, and to keep working on that elusive outside rein contact. I borrowed a barn kids’ JRD one weekend day and Murray felt amazing. I have always maintained that he’s not a super fussy guy about saddle fit, but he was so forward and into the contact that day that I thought it was worth another test. I also didn’t hate how it made me feel, so I wanted some trainer evaluation. (The verdict on the saddle: it was a bit wide, but Murray definitely did seem to move better in it. I’ll give it another go, but obviously this exactly saddle is not the ticket, though something like it may work well.)
The lesson itself focused on encouraging Murray to accept that outside rein contact and get him to bend around my inside leg instead of my inside rein. It’s a hard concept for him because he has relied so heavily upon that inside rein for balance and connection for so long. (This was a crutch, yes, but also a valuable training tool. I think I will write more about it later, as I’ve had some interesting discussions with my friends about this in the last few days.) Murray is averse to change and gets claustrophobic easily, and responds to that by shortening his stride and tensing his neck and back, i.e. the anti-dressage. I can get mean and kick him into the outside rein, sure, but the result of that is that he slowly pulls me out of the tack and then goes from a true bend to a counter bend and suddenly — hooray! — he’s on his beloved inside rein again.
We worked on the beloved 20 meter circle. After warming up with some stretchy work as soon as I picked up the outside rein and asked for a bit of connection to it Murray’s gait got stiffer, his back stopped swinging, and he got tenser overall. To ease him into it, trainer had me push Murray into the outside rein for a little bit and then relax the outside rein so he could resume stretching. I worked hard on not pulling Murray into the connection with the inside rein and instead pushing him into the outside rein with my inside leg, and also keeping him well aligned on the circle and not letting his haunches drift around. The benefits of this strategy were multi-fold: Murray slowly got more comfortable with the outside rein connection and became much steadier for longer periods of time, I gained a better understanding of how to lighten the contact without giving away the reins, and we reinforced the request for the stretchy trot.
Very interestingly, Murray struggled less with this tracking right (with my weak hand on the outside, and his weak hind on the inside), but I suspect it was because we went that way second. As he got more comfortable, I could feel his back swinging more and his gait opening up even with the outside rein contact, which is huge progress for him. Even better, he was really moving his outside foreleg around the circle, instead of pivoting his haunches around his front leg a little with each step, which is the influence of that outside rein.
We worked on the same thing in the canter, with a slightly different strategy. Tracking left Murray wanted to counter-flex again, but just pushing him into that rein didn’t really work, so I gently massaged the inside in conjunction with my inside leg to help him keep the inside bend and flexion. To the right he actually wanted to drift to the inside circle while maintaining his right bend, so I worked extra hard on pushing him to the outside. Good progress overall.
The last thing we worked on were lengthenings, which are probably the weakest part of our repertoire of first-level movements. Murray has never had a firm grasp on the concept, and usually offers to trot spastically or canter or just do nothing. Now that I had this really solid outside rein connection though I could balance him in a circle on the short side, half halt through the corner, and then let him open his frame up a little bit as we came out of the corner and then ask for the lengthening. This setup got fantastic lengthenings going left and okay ones to the right — once again that weak right hind not wanting to push. The outside rein connection was crucial here: in the past even with a steady contact to both reins an attempt to lengthen his frame was typically an invitation to hollow, and then the “big trot” ask just resulted in “jazz toezz!!” Now I could lengthen his frame with just a softening of the outside rein and he did so in a balanced way, and then the big trot ask was just MOAR TROT. It was cool.
This lesson was particularly good because it solidifed a lot of the concepts that have been pretty half-baked for me and Murray. We both got a better understanding of the connection to the outside rein and a better way to manage that connection (when I’m sucking or when Murray is feeling confined). It was one of those lessons heavy on the learning, my favourite type of lesson!