I had the best lessons this week. I don't think anyone watching them would have thought so. But I learned a lot.

Red was having a tough week. We had a visit from Frances this weekend and kind of overdid the lateral work. We lunged lightly on Monday but by Tuesday everything had stiffened up. Last week (after his massage), Red had been tracking up at the walk and warmed up to tracking up at the trot. Tuesday morning he was only stepping under the back edge of his rib cage (a foot or more short of tracking up) and was particularly stiff to the right. He improved a bit as we lunged but was still not really fluid after 5 minutes. But Erin is great about meeting horses where they are, so she just declared this "a suppling day" and we started our lesson.

When I got on, Red wanted to hollow and jog. Breathing and softening my seat let him relax enough to walk a 20 meter circle. Once we had a walk, Erin had me try shoulder in on the circle. By tipping Red's nose to the outside but maintaining my direction of travel on the track, I could gently stretch the outside hind as Red steps under. On the circle it is a little hard to figure out how much angle I have to my intended track. So when we could get into the dressage court, we moved the exercise to shoulder in with nose to rail. Part of the point of this exercise is to use the rail to retard forward motion so I don't have to create tension using the reins to slow his shoulders. Erin says she uses it with young horses who don't fully understand half halts. It is a great idea for Red because he tends to get fussy if I try to micromanage him. Using the geometry of the exercise for control, I can focus on what I want him to do - not what I didn't want him to do.

Erin had tried to teach me shoulder in with nose on the rail once before - on Ansel. I am still not sure I understand it completely. In particular, I am not sure where my balance should be. Probably the answer is "right in the middle of the horse". But I found myself at various times sitting way to the inside and the way to the outside. Perhaps if Erin can demonstrate it. I ride a lot by what feels right - but doing that depends on getting enough pieces right that it all falls into place. But in any case, we got enough of the pieces right on Tuesday that Red stretched enough to be able to do a reasonable working trot around the perimeter of the dressage court. Not bad for a horse who didn't even want to walk 15 minutes earlier.

Red had a visit from Kayla Wednesday so he was feeling a lot better this morning. Still a little tired, especially on the right hind. But he could track up almost immediately when we lunged and we got some reasonable transitions between all 3 gaits on the lunge line during our pre-ride warm up. We had to share the arena this morning and Red isn't very good at sharing. I am not sure what he is defending but he gets really upset when another horse comes within our 20 meter work area. Trisha was working on a lot of exercises that required the full arena so she came in and out of our end a number of times. So this morning's lesson was on using correct biomechanics to stay focused the work we needed to do.

Red can be a bit of a hot head, so one of the important lessons he and Erin are teaching me is not to get caught up in his drama. Reacting to it in any way - especially by 'correcting' him for it - just pulls me out of the exercise we are supposed to be doing and into his mental meltdown. The great thing about Erin is she knows how to leave me alone to sort through things - and then offer just the right suggestion about how to get the last piece that makes all the rest click.

Red was more or less doing what I asked - but he badly wanted to counterflex and swing his haunches in to threaten the other horse as she passed through our circle. All Erin said was "roll your shoulder blades down your back" and he was back on the correct bend and moving forward. So how is that related? Even though I thought I was staying focused on the exercise, I had let some tension creep into my body and I had tensed my upper body and was starting to curl forward. That feels like a nice safe defensive position if my horse should try to do anything - but it isn't. Once I am tense in my body, I can't go with my horse. He'll always be faster than I am if I have to consciously follow him. But if I am in the correct position, breathing tall through my center and relaxed in my extremities, then I am balanced over my horse and stuck to him like glue. Once I rolled my shoulder blades into position, my pelvis went back to its correct position with both seat bones in the saddle. Once my weight aid was correct, Red went back to the proper bend - and then I didn't have to use my legs to keep a hold of him. And with less tension in my seat, then Red could go forward more freely - which rewarded him for returning to the true bend.

Published June 29, 2011