The quality of my rides in the last week week have run the gamut from really great, progress-making, funtimes to inexplicable shit show. I’ve been focused on breaking some bad habits — hanging on the inside rein, letting Murray fall through his right shoulder — while developing the strength and discipline we need to think about the 1-3 and 2-1 tests. The learning curve in First level is actually really steep. In 1-1, you’re like “oh great, w/t/c in straight lines and circles and maybe a tiny bit of lengthening” and suddenly in 1-3 you’re doing counter canter and getting ready for canter-walk.
Anyway. Megan got on me a while back about not hanging on my inside rein, so I’ve been trying to very consciously release the inside rein while still maintaining the bend and not letting Murray fall all over himself. It’s especially hard when you use the right rein almost exclusively to keep your horse upright tracking right and prevent him from falling out tracking left. It requires a lot more push with my inside leg — the whole leg, not just my heel or calf — than I’m used to. Associated with falling through his right shoulder, we have three problems with working on a circle (because why not): 1) too much neck bend, 2) the haunches too far to the inside, 3) haunches too far to the outside, almost spinning around the inside front foot (a bigger problem to the right than to the left). I can finally feel a proper bend, avoid all three of these traps, and somehow not haul on the inside rein while doing it (pro tip: it actually helps if you don’t haul on the inside rein when trying to do this) for like… a circle or so. (This was the really great part, that was a big hurdle for both of us.)
This was all fine for a few rides. I focused on making my body do the right things and giving Murray plenty of praise when he responded correctly. A little bit to the left, and a lot to the right (our worse direction) with lots of walk breaks. It’s a lot harder for both of us at the canter, but we chipped away at it and worked on big figures and it got better for more than a few strides at a time.
There were a few minutes of bullshit here and there, but it seemed like it was mostly at the beginning of our rides. One ride took more than a moment, but I let Murray get down with his bad self a little, then went back to asking correctly and expecting him to respond correctly. It wasn’t instantaneous, but we got there. There may have been some inside rein hauling and a really open mouth and some really awkward tongue flapping.
Then I got it into my (stupid?) head that we should start to incorporate a little more collection and sit into the canter. I put four poles on an 18 meter circle, measured out three strides between each one for just a little stride compression, and planned to work the circle once we were good and warmed up. When we trotted through the poles it was fine — Murray maintained a steady-ish rhythm, and I tried to plan the next quarter of my circle to maintain consistent bend throughout. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes the rhythm broke down. Some circles were prettier than others.
The canter was an unmitigated disaster. His stride was a touch big when we entered the pole circle, so we came to the first pole a little off of the distance. It spiraled down from there, and Murray would launch over the pole to a long landing, which made turning more difficult, which resulted in more launching, or he break to a trot, or swap leads. Just messy messy mess.
Back to the trot it was, but this time it was really ugly. Murray anticipated the poles and went through all kinds of theatrics — to what end, I’m really not sure. At one point he jammed a tiny stride in front of the pole, totally inverted, and then managed to stomp on the pole with both hind feet. Talent.
This is my fault. When we work on poles in a circle I celebrate the most minor successes — if we get through them with one stride between them, no matter how flat, strungout, or growing the pace, I consider it good. But it’s not good. I’m rewarding us both for “trying”, not necessarily for succeeding. And I say “trying”, because it’s hardly an honest effort on either of our parts to complete the exercise precisely or successfully. Yoda came to me in this moment.
I slowed us down, way down. I posted very small, kept my legs on, and pushed Murray around that circle into the outside rein. I made it a circle. I made sure the pace remained the same. Then we cantered. Before we entered the circle I made sure that our canter was small and collected, and I made the circle a little larger so we could fit four in between the poles. And lo and behold – we could make the distances. And a round circle. And keep a steady pace. And not rely on the inside rein.
More interestingly, Murray totally stepped up to this exercise when I demanded more of him. The exercise isn’t hard, but it does require that we both think, and plan, and don’t spaz out or sabotage our own ankles for no reason. Murray didn’t insist that this exercise was too hard for him, we did it successfully, and he didn’t need me to baby him through it. From now on, we aren’t going to try exercises, we are going to do exercises.
This isn’t a hard ask. Select appropriate exercises. Do the exercises correctly. Reward success.