When I went from riding 4 times a week, to a mere 1 or 2, I admit I was terrified my whole relationship with Dandy would turn to shit. And indeed, the first month or so did bring a lot of setbacks, in terms of his willingness to work, his forward, and his overall skills. BUT, as often with horses, and in life in general, there is a silver lining. You only need to want to look for it. Because he was growing more distant from me and more reluctant to work, I tried to strive for togetherness, forward, and just a better will to operate as a team. That implied reviewing our best groundwork thoroughly, re-establishing and enforcing **forward** (the magic word for this horse), and being specific and demanding on proper execution of the simple things. That mean just moving off on a circle on cue, without reluctance of dragging. And yes that did imply a lot of flag shaking, and some butt whipping at times, to make sure I “meant” it, every single request I made, I truly meant it. I asked to yield the hindquarters, no sluggihly and with delay, but NOW and smoothly. I asked to back up soflty and with ease. I asked to yield the shoulder in a nice crossing of the outter front foot, etc. I made a favorite of that amazing rock-your-weight exercise, if you’ve never seen it performed by one of Buck’s horses it looks magical. The horse stands squarely balanced on all four, and on cue, rocks his weight back and forth, without moving his feet. It’s a thing of beauty and while we’re far from mastering it yet, Dandy has got the idea and performs it not bad at all. I love this exercise because it is such a fine level of communication and minuteness, it gets the horse focusing on the human (and vice versa) quite profoundly.
(Sorry for the horrid, blurry picture)
Once I think the grounwork part of things is running and polished enough, we work on our getting on off the fence. One side (the left one) is a piece of cake. Because I’ve neglected doing it from the right, it’s become challenging and stressful to the horse. So yesterday we worked at that, faithfully and steadily, until we succeeded. What I do now as a rule (will not last forever but it’s a phase I like to go through) is some bareback riding before saddling up and doing some “proper schooling”.
Let me make a confession : I never rode bareback before. Ever. Well, I brought one horse back to his pasture after a trail ride once, with no saddle. It was wildly adventurous for me at the time as I didn’t know the horse and we had to walk a few minutes in the open where anything (bad) could have happened. We made it safely to the pasture (not without a few challenges on course) but that was my first and only exposure to riding with no saddle on, and that took place in 6 years ago or so, so let’s say I’m a total beginner as far as bareback is concerned. The truth is, I have a confidence issue, constantly underestimate myself around horses, and never think of me as “good enough”. That’s also why starting and training my own colt is such a life changing experience for me, and I’m always shocked (and more than a little unsettled) every time I gave rave compliments about the work accomplished with him. I almost have the reflex to turn around and look for the recipient of those praising words, as it can’t possibly be me !?
When I first sat bareback on Dandy I was nearly shaking with excitement (and a little dread, too). I mean, with no saddle, a horse has very little to do to get rid of you. So if he keeps you safely up there, he is, in a way, taking care of you. He is controlling himself and staying steady and predicable in his moves, which allows you to stay on. If the horse is kind and honest, your confidence grows quickly, and soon you’re trotting and loping around and having an absolute blast. I don’t intend to do that too often or for too long. Chiropractors have long demonstrated bareback riding isn’t all that beneficial to the horse’s back, and I listen to my butt muscles this morning, it ain’t all that great for a human’s behind, either. But bareback does have its virtues. Let’s add to that the absence of bit or bridle. I ride Dandy in his halter, with either just the rope attached underneath, of tied up in make up “reins” at the best. In this minimal outfit, the rider needs to communicate politely and efficiently with the horse. And the horse needs to be willing to cooperate. If he’s not, at best he’ll just stand there and ignore you, at the worst will run off… without or (soon) without you. And I’m not even mentioning the effect a meek buck would have on me with no saddle…
Yesterday we walked, circled, trotted, and loped around, in both directions, for 20 minutes or so. Most of the time the colt was sluggish and almost dragging himself along, but the point when bareback is to keep your requests acceptable enough that the horse doesn’t tell you off. At some point he was more willing and rolled into a lovely relaxed lope, and we went around for a couple of perfectly heavenly laps, weighing nothing to each other, just in perfect synch. During those precious seconds the horse almost felt like he was moved by my mere tought, or intention, and that is something so pleasurable it’s hard to describe.
And it must have been quite relaxing to him, as well, because that is how he looked afterwards. This doesn’t look so when he’s that peaceful, but I have a very sensitive little horse, than can get “overexposed” quite easily. Which is why it is SO important to me to put his mental comfort first. That doesn’t mean he never gets challenged, quite the opposite, because as the provocating Clinton Anderson likes to say “heart attackes are free”, and I do like to get him “up”, so he can learn to come “down” more and more readily. But, bareback, one is not equipped to face the consequences of much “up”, so the biggest challenge he faced was being asked to parrallel park to the fence from the right, and give some better forward when ridden, and I had to find the sweet spot between being efficient and not picking a fight.
Add to that the fact he’d seen the vet for his yearly shot in the morning, and that the doc had advised to keep work very light for the next 24 hours. But from experience I know that sessions a little new, a little out-of-the-box thinking always do him a lot of good, and I don’t doubt that tomorrow he’ll be ready for more traditional riding and more demanding schooling. Till then, I like to see our bareback adventures as a futher step down Mutual Trust road 😉