Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Contact Is Not the Enemy

Since there are now three of us riding Halo, there is a fun email correspondence going back and forth regularly between us about our rides. I feel like I've been writing so much email that it has allowed me to neglect my blogging duties! And still, despite all the communication there are things that only become clear in person.

Yesterday I met up with Allegra at the barn. She wanted to try applying some ground work exercises with a rider on board to see if we could help clarify some cues for Halo. We set out to work on two things: leg yields and upward transitions from trot to canter.

Halo doesn't quite have leg yields down yet. The main problem is that she will move her front end over and then trail her hind end, not crossing over in the back. We have front wheel drive and need rear wheel drive instead. As I asked for a yield from the quarter line to the rail, Allegra would push on Halo's hip in addition to my cue. What struck me was how very different it felt when Halo was using her hind end. Now I know what the feeling is that we're searching for, which will hopefully make it easier to achieve without help on the ground. I know what to reward.

Another thing that probably added confusion to the mix is that the leg cues I taught Halo are that leg at the girth means move your front end over, and leg further back means move your hindquarters. From talking with Allegra it sounds like she was using opposite cues - so when going from the quarter line to the rail she would move her outside leg back and keep her inside leg forward. That is one of the many challenges when multiple riders are working with a horse - we might all be doing things slightly differently. Oops.

After we spent some time doing the leg yields, we moved to the outdoor arena to work on canter transitions. There was a ring of cones out there with dressage letters on them that provided a helpful guide. We trotted a circle around the cones, and I would call out to Allegra at which letter I was going to ask for canter. As I cued to Halo, she would reinforce the cue with the familiar longe whip cue from the ground. The results weren't perfect every time, but she definitely got a few nice snappy transitions. She was best when I set her up for it properly with a nice forward trot, and then sat back out of the way of her shoulders as I cued. It was a great exercise and I would definitely like to do it again.

Interestingly, the most important takeaway from our ride turned out to be contact. Allegra showed me how much more contact she has been using on Halo. As a rider in general I tend to err on the side of looseness with the reins. It works fine when all I'm asking of her is to get herself around the arena one way or another, or if we are just poking down the trail. I assumed that if I took up more contact, she would suck behind the bit and we would be back to square one. I was wrong. Halo seems to crave a steadier, firmer contact in addition to a strong leg to support her and push her forward. Of course now my legs are good and sore today! I had to shorten my reins several inches from where I had them, and even then Allegra had to keep reminding me to keep them shortened. The improvement in how Halo carried herself was unquestionable. We got a much more consistent trot, and even some nicely rounded canter. Using more contact also meant I had to work harder at keeping my seat deep so that I didn't get pitched forward. My abs are sore today too. It's a good feeling.

The contact issue may seem like a "duh" moment to some of you, but it's amazing the things we don't catch ourselves doing without a set of eyes on the ground. I haven't had consistent lessons in nearly ten years now, so there are plenty of gaping holes in my knowledge and abilities. I'm grateful that Allegra had time to come out with me, and I'm happy to have some equitation homework to do.


in2paints said...

That's very interesting! Lilly was the same way when we were first starting out too. She seemed to crave the contact, both with the reins and also with my legs. As her training progressed, though, she wanted less and less contact with the reins, so I'll be curious to see if Halo is the same way.

I'm glad you had such a good ride!

spazfilly said...

I bet she will be like Lilly - I think right now she's still green and needs firm direction. She's smart though, and I imagine once she understands what she is being asked to do she won't need so much guidance.