Sub-50 temperatures have descended upon Northern California, and even if those are just the lows for a week, it means that winter has come.
My first ride back from Thanksgiving break (Murray got something like 8 days off) didn’t happen until it was good and dark, and Murray is not accustomed to being ridden in the dark. He likes to be snuggied into bed (or better, his pasture) at nighttime, and ridden in the warmer afternoons or (if he must) the mornings. But nighttime it was. It was also 44 degrees.
When I got on, Murray’s back was so tense and up that I felt like I was right about to slide off his withers. We were certainly in for a little rodeo, but we’ve done such a good job of working through things lately that I was sure we could sort ourselves out in a few minutes. Murray power walked around the arena, and chose to pick up the trot for no reason in several places, and then canter because why not. The only thing that put the kibosh on his plans to just runrunrunfastfastfast and get through the ride as quickly as possible were the dreaded sounds. Every time a piece of sand hit the wall, someone spoke outside of the arena, a tree branch moved, or I coughed, Murray spooked.
Some of his spooks were mighty spooks — scooting, running, head in the air spooks. Some of them were bucky spooks. All of them were flaily spooks.
In the past when Murray has been super spooky and scooty and cold backed, trying to get him to work into contact is not terribly productive. He feels “trapped” easily and then starts to bend in the middle to make space for his body — and that bend usually comes in the form of his withers rising up towards my face. But I wasn’t planning to let him get away with wasting the ride with bad behavior either. So I just focused on bringing him towards a more balanced, proper dressage trot or canter from wherever he was “stuck”. When he wanted to get too forward and rushy, I rebalanced and slowed down and thought about suspension. When he wanted to go to slowly and get sticky and inverted, I focused on keeping his hind end active.
I didn’t totally abandon the connection, but I didn’t try to force the issue either. I just tried to keep my hands steady and a little wide (helps me keep them steady at a longer rein length), and let Murray fuss and flip his way to accepting work again.
And it worked! After about thirty minutes and only nearly-falling-off twice, Murray settled into a rhythm and loosened his back. Sure, he was too tired to be terribly naughty at that point anyway (yay unfit horse), but that is not the important part. The important part is that we got there and he actually listened to me! This is the part that’s really awesome, because pretty much every other winter (or spring/summer/fall) when I’ve had rides like this I’ve basically had to write them off as “just get through it” rides. I didn’t have enough tools in the kit to get myself and Murray sorted and put together, and he didn’t have enough brain cells to listen even if I had.
But now we can have ridiculous spooking and a conversation about actually moving into the contact in the same ride! This is huge for us!
This winter is going to be awesome.