Sunday, May 16, 2010

Softness, Part II

After posting about softness and reading all your wonderful comments (thank you - what a lot of good information was in there!), I went to a dressage lesson on Wednesday where I had the best lesson ever. I kid you not. It was glorious. Then, yesterday, I rode in a jumping clinic where she was quite horribly tense for pretty much the entire ride. So.

In the dressage lesson, I could tell from the moment I picked her up to start riding that we were going to be good. McKinna didn't pop her head up as soon as I picked up the reins (this comes in later). She was willing to work with me as I warmed up at the trot and did some ring figures. Then down to the big circle with Leslie, which is were we do most of our work - on a maybe 25m circle. Like I said, it was glorious. Leslie had me keep my hands where they should be, with a slightly longer rein, and continually ask McKinna to come down/out to me, not me shortening to meet her. It worked wonderfully.

We had a soft and swinging back, longer and slower steps, and a horse willing to take contact while lifting and carrying herself, moving in a light bend from my inside leg. Even at the canter, I was able to get softness and stretch and a quiet, reasonably-paced gait.

Very exciting.

Basically everything I was doing was this cycle: ask her to soften, ask her to lift that inside ribcage over, half-halt with the outside, a little more forward, ask her to soften and reach forward...

This was I think the best dressage ride I've ever had on McKinna.

Then we come to yesterday, which was a Standards and Ratings clinic for Pony Club. I had high hopes, because she hung out in her stall all day munching on hay as quiet as can be, was nice and relaxed while I tacked her up, and was easygoing while I walked around on a long rein waiting for the last group to finish up.

But seriously. As soon as I picked up my reins, up pops the head and away we go. She was tense. She was rushing or sticky by turns. She was counterflexing. For a bit, when I tried what Leslie was having me do - that is, keep my hands where they should be and ask her to reach out to me - it seemed to help, but I couldn't get any consistency with lengthened reins as she'd usually just keep her head up and start rushing. Every time I tried to pick up a light contact, she hollowed out. Eventually I was able to get some semblance of a working trot, but she was not feeling cooperative.

Then we headed through gridwork (this was a very short ride, as it was more of a demo for the clinician to explain to auditors what the standards are). She was fine, if still tense. Trot poles to X to vertical, two strides to the oxer. The oxer was set on a long stride for us, and I was pleased with how well McKinna opened up her stride to jump it, but then it took me the whole arena to get her to come back. I just didn't have soft half halts - they weren't going through. No matter how I tried to do them, with body, with hands, carrying my hands, hands lower, with elbows or shoulders or mostly the outside rein or whatever - I mostly met up against a wall.

Then I rode a short course. I trotted a circle before going through the grid, asking her to stretch down, which she sort of did but not really, and it did make for a more relaxed ride through the grid. Still no half-halt when I needed to trot to change my lead. The other fences rode decently, not really rushed but definitely not calm and relaxed. After I landed from the last fence, I trotted a circle and really gave her the reins. She did stretch down for most of the circle, though she wasn't thrilled about it. I discussed my performance with the audience, then went away to trot some figures down at the end of the arena to get her to calm down.

Worked on trot figure-8s, resisting the urge to shorten my reins, just continually asking her to soften and come to me. (I have gotten better at staying soft and relaxed in my body when she tightens up. Thank you trainers. It did sort of work, and I think if I'd been super tense it would have made things worse.) I got a little response out of her, though not much. I asked her to do one canter and got my half-halt going through a little more, then did the course again.

It went better. The gridwork was pretty soft and quiet, I was able to bring her back to me quietly in order to change leads, and the rest of the course rode pretty well.

So there is a lot to think about. One is the almost reflexive way she throws her head up when I touch the reins to shorten them. She just had her teeth floated in the fall; our vet checked her only a few weeks ago and said she was looking just fine. Still, maybe I will take a look in there and see if I can find anything going wrong. Perhaps it is the bit? I am going to buy a french-link loose-ring Happy Mouth from the local tack store as soon as it is in stock. Perhaps she will prefer the lighter, softer bit. I also have a heavy eggbutt french link, heavier than the lozenge-style loose ring she's in right now, so perhaps she would prefer a heavier, more solid bit.

Maybe it's saddle fit. This one is nagging at me. Both my saddles appear to fit well to my not-highly-trained but still fairly picky eye. I don't know if it's one or the other or both that's bothering her - last week, my jumping lesson was great and my dressage lesson was tense. This week, my dressage lesson was great and my jumping lesson was tense. I am in the process of scoping out saddle fitters in the region who are NOT affiliated with a particular brand, and seeing how much this will cost. Her back does not appear to be sore to palpation, but she does sometimes make rude faces when putting the saddle pad on or adjusting a blanket in the wither area. I think this may have something to do with it...but then why would I get such lovely work sometimes?

So I guess this is the plan. Check out saddle fit ASAP, try out different bits to see if there's a difference, and just keep taking consistent lessons to see if it is merely a resistance-to-work thing.

I admit I'm feeling a bit discouraged after yesterday's ride. She can be so damn good when she's working right, but it seems like every time I take her somewhere she just can't get past her own tension. And you can't force relaxation, obviously. But really? This was a clinic in the arena we take lessons in weekly. The fences were easy. The work wasn't hard. It seems like something is bothering her, but what, and why so inconsistently? And why does firmly pushing her into softness work one day, and quietly asking her to come to softness work the next time, and neither works the time after that?

Grumble, mutter, etc. Despite all my frustration, I am still happy with McKinna. She's come a long way in just four months of lessons, and she's a good horse. We will work through this stuff, it's just another rough patch - like the canter, which I thought would never be fixed, which is now pretty reliably three-beat and not at the speed of Mach 5. We'll get down to the bottom of whatever is causing all this resistance, whether it's physical or mental. I'm thinking of, just for the heck of it, riding her with just a neck rope for a little while, doing some flatwork out in the field or something. It would be just like her to calm down with less aids. But then, she never gets all tense at home, so I don't know how much good it would do.

Anyway. One way or another, we'll figure out the softness thing until we can be pretty consistently relaxed and focused. Eventually.


Heidi said...

Even if your saddle fits to your eye, that does not mean she likes how it feels. I was trying dressage saddles last summer and put one on my boy that looked great. But when I got on he was awful! I was not sure it was the saddle or if he was just grumpy so I switched to one of my friend's saddles that I knew fit him and had a great ride. I guess it's like tennis shoe brands for people. They may be the right size, but one brand may work for you and another won't. Good luck!

tangerine said...

oh boy. When you said she was so good dressage and bad jumping I immediately thought saddle fit. I would have them both checked out. I can give you some quick tips that I've learned, but some horses are picky, and you said that sometimes its better in one then the other...

I've been looking into bit-less for a long time. I still have yet to get up the courage to actually by/try one because I ride an infrequently worked young TB who is temperamental at best. Might be something to look into. Also, look up the Micklem multibridle. Looks really innovative and cool.

Another thing to keep in mind is to remember that days when she's really good are likely to be followed by days where she's more sore than usual. Maybe quit while you're ahead with less work done, so that it can get more consistently better in smaller amounts.

Just my $0.02 but good luck!

manymisadventures said...

Thanks for the ideas, guys. I am definitely looking into saddle fit - just got a pretty nice Albion jumping saddle off eBay so when that gets here I will see. Everything else is on the list for consideration (and trust me, it's a long list..)

I do love the looks and design of the Micklem, but McKinna hates stuff going on down around her mouth. It's why I stopped using a figure-8. She is happiest with a plain caveson!

Deered said...

He're the really picky question. Did you have the bad work on tape or any photos of it. If possible get some video of when she is resistant, and see where your body is. I have found that when the horse is being difficult sometimes if you forget about trying to "work" the horse and work on your balance and position in the saddle suddenly the horse improves! The basci rules I was taught were, shoulder, hip and heel in a vertical line, and your hips should be moving on the same line as theirs and your shoulders and theirs should also be on the same line as theirs, and look through the ears not at your hands. I know it's really simple and basic, and boring, but it often works.

Also she may be a little sore if she's working really well, and doing movements that she hasn't done in the past, so maybe look at after you have a superb dressage ride like the one you described, riding trail riding for 1/2hr to an hour the next day on a loose rein to let her recover.

mugwump said...

I immediately wondered who was tense first, you or your mare. It's been a long time problem of my own at shows.
I come to the shows with a little, nervy thread running through me. I anticipate a stressed horse or become too hopeful, thus get all adrenaline rushy.

manymisadventures said...

At least part of it is me. Maybe a big part.

I know this because when I focus on taking big calm breaths, relaxing my upper body, and staying soft through my elbows, it helps. It doesn't fix everything, but it gives McKinna the open space in which to relax.

I do make sure that I'm careful about her workload. She rarely if ever gets a hard workout two days in a row - after a lesson she'll often get the day off or have a nice light ride. With another horse that might be counterproductive but she likes the down time.

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