Then we transitioned into another GREAT exercise. I think probably the one that, for me, was the biggest epiphany. We paired off and were given a pair of reins (similar to a pair of pants or scissors, I'm pretty sure they're still a pair even if they're just one piece). We took turns being horse and rider, and I started off as the rider, with Beverly as my "horse." The reins were clipped together where they normally clip to the bit, and the "horse" held the clip ends of the reins in their hands. Celena had the riders do various things while "halted," such as pick up the reins like we were chatting with friends, finished up, and decided to ride off. The "horses" were surprised by how aggressive just taking up the contact like that could be. She had us start with a very loose rein then slowly increase the contact and have the "horse" tell the "rider" when they could feel it. We were all shocked by how loose the reins were when the "horse" still felt the contact.
Soon, we switched to walking around with our "horses." Again, we were amazed at how little contact the "horse" could feel, and how jarring a normal halt cue felt to them. We tried to see how gentle the cue could be and have the "horse" still feel it, and it was surprisingly subtle. Then we tried turning. First the way we normally would, then the way Celena had been teaching us, with the "hitch-hiker thumb." The old way worked, but did feel abrupt to the "horse," and like you were jerking it around and telling it where it HAD to go. When doing the opening rein method, you gently restrict the motion to the "wrong" side by holding that rein steady, and ALLOW the horse to move in the desired direction by removing the pressure from that side, so rather than pulling the horse around, you're encouraging it to head in the new direction, and again, it was amazing to hear feedback from the "horses" about the difference in cues and to see and feel how subtle the cues could be and still be effective. We did a bit of "trotting," too, then switched. Since I'd heard the feedback from my "horse" already, I probably wasn't as surprised by feeling the cues as a "horse" myself, but it was still so amazing to sense the differences that the horse must feel, especially since it has a bit in its mouth (or at least Arya does--some people ride with various other setups that don't involve a bit) instead of pliable reins in its hands as we did. We finished up with an exercise where each person held one end of the same rein in each hand, and one partner closed their eyes. The other partner "gave" and "took" the rein, and the goal of the person with their eyes closed was to maintain the same level of contact--not to pull back or allow to much slack, but just to maintain gentle tension. It was harder than it looked, but all of these exercises gave us some really good perspective on what our horses might be feeling when we ride.
So, after all that "book" learnin' (no horses, anyway), we got our horses and headed down to the arena to work on more groundwork. And if you're seeing the photo below and noticing that the arena doesn't appear to have any fences, you're right. It's kind of like an infinity pool. :-) There's an above-the-arena retaining wall on one long side, with a pasture just above it. A hot walker at one of the short ends at roughly the same grade as the arena, the "gate" at the other short end, at the same grade of course, along with the trail obstacles and some paddocks at that end, then the other long wall is a retaining wall, but the arena is the high side, and it drops down to a lower level and then an irrigation canal just below the arena.
Anyway, we worked a little more on ground-tying (aka "responsibility" while at the halt), and backing up, etc. Then it came time to back through poles laid out in an L shape. Actually, two nesting L shapes providing an L-shaped aisleway to back down. I started Arya off easy, just backing straight out, not through the whole L. Then added in the L. Her poor feet were so confused. She just doesn't seem to understand picking them UP to avoid the poles. She plants her feet wherever she was originally going to plant them, they wobble, and she panics (mildly, but still). She sometimes tries again, moving them a millimeter or two, but often just loses it and decides to back up or move forward quickly to get off of the offending "terrain." So in the L, she would often end up backing straight out of it at the junction rather than turning around the L. So I'd slow her WAY down, and try to get her to just calmly back up one step. Stop. Move the haunches or front legs if necessary. Then back up. She started getting the idea, and we eventually backed up all the way from the front to the back of an L without stepping on a pole. Yay, us!
|We had a mix of mares vs. geldings, but all the horses were BIG, and all but one were bays. One lone palomino stood out.|
After the backing through Ls, Celena asked who wanted to work on the trail obstacles and who wanted to work on "circling" (aka lunging). The group was kind of split, so she just gave the obstacle people some pointers and gave hands-on help to the circling people. I've worked on the circling exercises with her before in our smaller lessons, so I opted for the obstacles. There was one that was a partial oval of tires, about the size and dimensions of a one-horse trailer, stacked on the ground, with barrels on top of the tires. So the sides of this "trailer" went up to about the horse's eye level, though it didn't have a roof. The ultimate goal is to back the horse in until its butt touches the far end. But Celena warned us that that might not be possible in just one day and that we should take it slow. Introduce the obstacle, let the horse go in head first, check out the surroundings, knock over a barrel or two, etc. Slowly work up to backing in, and depending how the horse did with just backing in a few inches, maybe that would be it for the day.
So. I took Arya over to the obstacle, and she snorted and blew and checked it out thoroughly, and I just let her. No pressure. Once she seemed comfortable with the funky smell of the tires and the tall barrels and so forth, I asked her to step in it (front first). More heavy breathing. Another step. And so forth, till she was pretty much all the way in. She was sniffing around the barrels, and one fell over. Good! Better now while she can see it and understand what just happened than if the first time one fell over was while she was backed in. I put it back up, she kept checking stuff out until she seemed fully comfortable (having treats would have helped even more, but I didn't have any on me). So then I parked her in front of the opening, perpendicular to it. I backed her up and moved her forward a bit, until she was lined up with her butt near the opening. I'd back her a step, move her front or back end as necessary to adjust the aim, then back her another step. All the while letting her sniff and breathe and whatever she needed to do to be okay with this situation. If she seemed to nervous at any time, I was ready to call it a day, but she always calmed right down in a few seconds whenever she did get nervous, which wasn't even every step. So we kept backing up, until her butt was right up against the barrels. Woo hoo! What a GOOD, brave girl! I hollered at Celena, but she was too busy teaching the folks in the arena, so she didn't hear/see. Oh well. I was SO proud of Arya.
So of course she got a break, and I headed into the arena. I should've stayed in "break" mode, apparently. But I got bored with just standing watching other people do circles, so I listened in on Celena's instructions, and I think she even came over to give me a quick tutorial, and we gave it a shot. The idea is that when the horse is circling one direction and you want to switch directions, you slide the rope just so with one hand, and move toward the horse's hip to get it to move away from you, and the horse should turn around and head the other way. Easy peasy. Well, Arya didn't understand, probably because I wasn't doing it right, and I think she was also like, "How much are you going to ask of me today, woman?!?!" And she basically said "screw you guys, I'm going 'home.'" And turned tail toward me and kicked out, whether in defiance or frustration or just whatever. One of her hind feet nailed me in the belly. Rather hard. Her other foot didn't hit me, thankfully. And lucky for me, I'm fat. Not just "overweight," but well and truly fat. And she hit literally the fattest part of me. So I quickly realized that I wasn't permanently injured, though I was in rather a lot of pain at the moment. If I'd been skinnier, she could have broken my hip bone. If she'd hit me in the head or shin or something, it could have easily meant a hospital trip. But she hit me where I can most take it, though it did bruise rather spectacularly. I'll spare you the photographic evidence.
So. When I doubled over from the kick, I also let go of the rope. Arya made a beeline for the "gate" but then stood there as if she didn't know what to do with herself now that she'd freed herself from my tyranny. Ha! Someone caught her, and Celena (after checking that I was okay, of course), asked if I minded if she worked with her a bit. Um, duh! Yes, please! And put the fear of God (and me!) in her while you're at it. So Celena asked us all if she should punish her for what she just did. No, of course not. It was much too late by this point. But she did point out that she could push her limits again, and if she showed any signs of even THINKING about kicking out, she could make it clear it was a very bad idea. So Celena got busy making Arya turn back and forth, back and forth, and sure enough, she got a bit pissy about it, and Celena made it really clear that that couldn't happen, and Arya seemed rather contrite and obeyed quite nicely the rest of the session, so I took her back up to the barn and put her away for lunch.
Lunch REALLY hit the spot after the stress. Over lunch, everyone was picking Celena's brain about riding endurance, and when talk turned to taking care of the horses after and she said she was a big proponent of wrapping the horse's legs, people had a ton of questions. So finally, Paige just went and fetched the supplies and even provided herself as the "horse" for the demonstration. She even put that leg on tippie-toe to better simulate the horse's pastern and fetlock. What a good sport!
Soon enough, it was time for the riding portion of the day, and this time my group was riding first. I wasn't even sure I'd feel okay riding, since my big belly might hit the pommel of the saddle, but it was actually okay. I probably wouldn't have wanted to go for miles, and I didn't do a TON of trotting, but it worked out. We did similar stuff to the prior day, working on making our steering cues as subtle as we could by using our body more. I honestly don't remember much about the specifics. Heh.
|Look at my awesome hitchiker thumb there! And you can see the trail obstacles in the background. [Photo by Karen Weiderman]|
We were taking turns riding so Celena could watch one person at a time and give her feedback, and whenever I wasn't actively riding, I made sure to "park" Arya in the shade as it was HOT, and she's a dark color plus I needed to stay out of the sun as much as I could, too. We were about done for our session when one of the attendees wanted to try cantering. She hasn't cantered her horse much, and wanted Celena's feedback. So I "parked" in the shade, and was turning as far as I could in one direction to watch, then turning back around when she passed behind me. She was about done with the cantering and trying to slow her horse to a trot with just her seat cues. I saw the horse break gait to a very bouncy canter, then snapped around, and the rider was on the ground. Apparently she lost a stirrup, so that plus the bouncy trot just bounced her right off. Reassuring to her to know the horse wasn't TRYING to ditch her, though, I think. She got back on for a minute, but just wasn't feeling it, and I think the shake-up plus the heat were getting to her. So I walked up to the barn with her and tried to keep an eye on her for a while.
At some point I realized I hadn't seen her in a while, so tried to track her down to check on her, and didn't see her in the barn or Celena's house (our home base for the weekend). I looked down toward the arena, and sure enough, she was sitting down there (in the shade, though!), watching the other riders take their turns. So I headed down there to do the same. I don't have any photos of me riding, really, but got some of the other riders:
Working on a "light seat" while trotting over poles:
I think this was while doing a "twisty trot," twisting the upper body one direction on the "up" beat of the trot, then the other direction on the next up beat:
The original plan left the possibility of a trail ride open for Sunday night, but we were all pooped and hot and exhausted and tired, and did I mention POOPED, plus I'm sure the horses agreed, so we called it a night. I took care of Arya's food and poop situation, and headed home. Shar would fetch her in a day or two.
All in all a great weekend, though a couple of us had bruises to show for it. But I think even those of us with bruises would agree it was worth it and would do it again. Thanks, Celena!