Friday, November 6, 2009

Flat work: under construction

So after my lesson last Sunday, my back was so sore from Tucker trying to yank me over front of the saddle that I could barely sleep, and have been sleeping only with the help of various heating devices (hot water bottle, flax seed herbal heating pack, electric heating pad) all week. On Monday morning as I was curled over cave-man-style shuffling around my apartment, I thought, "This has got to stop."

You know I'm a big believer in the selective and judicious use of gadgets. I believe that they have their place in a program, if it's the right gadget and it's used properly.

I have four issues that need fixing: (1) Tucker throws his head in the air for upward transitions, or when something becomes "too hard;" (2) Tucker roots the reins out of my hands, mostly at the canter and especially after jumps; (3) Tucker gets rigid through downward transitions, his hind end falls out behind him and he jerks his head up, especially from the canter (trot is improving steadily) and we think he may just not understand what I want; (4) when Tucker anticipates a lead change across the diagonal of the ring, he will stick his head straight up in the air, run, and only do half a lead change.

I'm working on ways to fix these things without the use of gadgets and we're making slow progress in some areas. (1) I'm working on forward impulsion at the walk, and using more seat to ask for upward transitions. Walk-to-trot has improved dramatically. Trot-to-canter is usually good. Walk-to-canter is still touch-and-go. (2) I can leg yield from the rail to the quarter line at the canter to prevent him from rooting down the longside of the arena. Either it keeps him more connected back-to-front or it just gives him something to think about. (3) On the downward transitions, I apply leg yielding as well. Canter-to-walk is generally, to be quite honest, still a disaster. (4) I've started doing more counter-canter, so that he (hopefully) learns that coming across the diagonal doesn't always mean a lead change. Sometimes he has to hold a counter-lead, sometimes he's going back to the inside lead. Too early to tell yet if this will work. (Mind you, he does perfect changes for Alicia, so clearly it's me. But, at least I know it's not physical.)

On Wednesday night, I tried a set of draw reins. Alicia has a pair that has bungee cording, so they have more give than regular draw reins. I've used draw reins before to teach him to go long-and-low (nose to the ground) but never in his working gaits. This did not work. He was behind my leg to start (something that's never a problem). I got him coming forward and then he wanted to lean on the draw reins (not the point, this made my back hurt more). Worked on some shoulder-in, haunches in, and transitions, got him a little bit lighter but with a lot of effort on my part (gadget was supposed to make things easier). At the canter, my half-halts created this awful chin-to-chest reaction (obviously not the goal). Then he spooked at something, hit the end of the draw reins, panicked, ran backward shaking his head side-to-side wondering what monster was pulling on him (oh dear, definitely not good). He never fully relaxed after the spook despite my best efforts at relaxation, though we did get a decent canter by the end. Terrible, terrible downward transitions though. More stiffness, more resistance, total confusion on his part.

So obviously the draw reins did not help. There were things I liked: it was easier to control bulging through his shoulder, for example, and his haunches-in movements were awesome off both legs. Also, for a training tool for me, they were good because they forced me to carry my hands (I tend to ride with my hands way too low and my reins too long). Generally, what I didn't like was that they encouraged him to stiffen through his jaw, set against my hand, and fall behind my leg. In short,the cons outweigh the pros.

Last night, I rode him in a corkscrew. I usually use a double-jointed rotary. He was fantastic. His trot work was truly excellent. Lateral movements were great, cavaletti work was relaxed and forward. His canter was very good. He tried to root once, caught the business end of the corkscrew, his head shot straight up in the air and he kind of bounced off my hand for two strides. I didn't pull, just kept my hand steady, let him fight it out with himself, so to speak, and then softened my hand as soon as he relaxed. He learned from it and didn't try to root the reins again. The rest of the canter work, including the counter-canter, was very good. And at the end, I got a lovely canter-walk transition. He did one I didn't like, I calmly picked up the canter again and asked for another downward, this one was better but not perfect but I patted his neck to let him know he was close, and then he did one perfectly. Soft and forward, not balancing off my hand, into a nice soft forward trot. Good boy!

So he has the day off today as a reward. Tomorrow, I am going to try out a Chambon and see if that will get the results we're after. I also definitely want to try jumping him in the corkscrew. He was so soft and light in my hand last night, I'm really curious to see if that will keep him from landing and rooting after the jumps. Obviously, I'll need to stay very soft with my hands but I think I can do that.

Tucker gets body clipped tomorrow, and hopefully I'll have time for a ride in the chambon once I'm done with that. Alicia will probably have to ride him for me on Sunday because I have a baby shower to go to (it makes me feel guilty, but does anyone else resent when people plan things during the day on a weekend? Don't they know they are cutting into my barn time? Hmph.)

Hope you all have a great weekend!


  1. To solve the problems you describe, I think that you may need to think about what's happening behind the saddle instead of in the front half of the horse. Draw reins can (sometimes) achieve a frame, but that's only about the withers forward - the result achieved is artificial - it looks good but there's no there there. I used to use draw reins a lot and never use them now. It's a good way to end up with a horse that's afraid of contact and "curls up". Same with a stronger bit - you're influencing the front of the horse, not the hindquarters. It has to come from the back end forewards, not the other way around. I know this doesn't really help from a practical point of view, as there's a lot that goes into getting real softness from the nose to the tail, where the power of the hindquarters can allow the horse to go in self-carriage - you get a frame there too but it's a frame that's real. But then my advice is probably worth about as much as you paid for it, which is nothing! Good luck!

  2. I agree with you in most cases, and obviously the draw reins had that effect on Tucker - he immediately became afraid of the contact. Generally, I think they work for some horses some of the time, as with most everything else. If the rider is still riding, not just setting the horse's head into position, the horse isn't always only working from the withers forward. On the other hand, there's a lot of riders that let the draw reins create the pretty picture without actually accomplishing anything. As far as the stronger bit goes, I think it actually encouraged Tucker into self-carriage because he became less interested in pulling the reins out of my hands and more interested in actually listening the rest of my aids (my seat, my leg). But, again, it's just a tool, not something I'd use on him every day. I appreciate your comments though, and I do agree 100% that it has to come from behind. What I'm trying to figure out is how to get there without crippling myself!

  3. I'm not a huge fan of draw reins, because the horses I've seen them used on generally reacted just like Tucker. FREAK!! I think they feel trapped, but I guess I've never asked one of them, so I don't know.

    And I'm totally with you on the people-planning-stuff-on-weekends thing. It's quite annoying. Really people. I probably don't like you more than my horse, so don't make me choose.

  4. I don't want to sound like a know it all, because I don't profess to know everything. However, if I were you I might rethink riding in a chambon. This piece of equipment is not meant to be ridden in, it is designed to be used only in longeing. And then only at a walk and slow trot and is not suitable for canter,especially at the beginning.It takes months of work to build up to canter and the chambon must be lengthened in canter. The chambon should also be used with a very mild bit. I hope this helps you a little.

  5. No need for the disclaimers, I know everyone's comments are meant to be productive and helpful and I won't be offended! You know what they say about the horse world: two people, three opinions. I'm playing around to see what works, I've had good experiences with a chambon before but I'm not wedded to anything. The good thing about Tucker (as I'm sure you can tell) is that he's definitely not stoic. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and if he's uncomfortable or confused, he won't hesitate to let his rider know. So, we'll see how things go and if it doesn't work, we'll scrap it and go back to the think tank.

  6. Good for you for trying to make life easier for you and your boy. If things are THAT tough then you need to come to a solution that makes you and him happy. As a regular reader I think you clearly sound like a great rider who understands how to use these more advanced types of equipment and you have a great trainer too...I'm sure you'll find something that makes life a little easier. I mean, if he's resisting too like that then he's not comfortable either so trying to fix it via more flat or lessons might not solve the problem anyways. Good luck girl! Sucks getting older doesnt it, I used to NEVER get sore after a ride and now I'm like a crippled wrinkled old lady after a demanding lesson :P

  7. Final often do you get out and just let him play, like gallop under saddle in a field with no cares...I know with my mare it is crucial that she gets time to just be gallopped around and be a kid. Otherwise she is a cranky and gets tougher and tougher to ride (especially on the flat!). Ok, there's my two cents :) I'm done, enjoy your Saturday!!!!

  8. Oh! And I totally left you half a comment. The other half was that I know a lady who's reschooling an OTTB, and she rides him with a set of draw reins that she just picks up once in a while. So my point was that used properly, they can be an effective tool.

    And Izzy's the same way about letting me know what she thinks. There is no halfway with that girl. ;-)


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