Saturday, June 9, 2012

Lessons Learned From Life in the Slow Lane...

Joe and Noah graze the Injured One while
Noah studies for finals.
If you see me on the highway, you'll know pretty quickly that I am not a slow lane kind of girl.  I travel in the fast lane, mostly because I like to get where I'm going in as little time as possible, and because usually there's an option for me to pull off to safety if things go sideways, as they are wont to do on the busy highways of New Jersey.  See, it's always about strategic thinking, my friends!

So when Sug's recent suspensory injury relegated us to tack walking only, I decided to apply some strategic thinking to this part of our journey together.  I won't lie, my first thought was that I'd be bored to tears, perambulating gently around and around the ring.  Well, let me share this little tidbit with you -- there's a lot to be learned at the walk.

First of all, I was instructed to make her march around the ring on contact.  No perambulation allowed.  OK, easy enough, right?  Nope.  Most of the times when we walk our horses we just let them flop around on the buckle and relax after a period of intense exertion.  So they're not used to really marching, much less doing so on the bit.  Then, typically, when we're ready to get back to work we gather up the reins and often there's some jigging, or a haunch coming to the inside in anticipation of the trot or canter. 

So first off we worked on getting Sug off my leg and making her march around the arena.  First lesson learned: The mare ain't exactly electric off my leg, and she certainly isn't great at holding herself in the same pace.  Ian Millar has often said that he tells the horse what pace to go at, and then the horse is responsible for maintaining that.  We should not have to "nag" them along.  I employ a trick I learned from Bernie Traurig's called the "hook-up."  She slows down, or doesn't respond immediately to my leg, and I swiftly bring my heels up and inter her sides, giving her a gentle but insistent reminder with the spur.

HEY!  Um, excuse me!  Leg?  What leg?  You don't have a leg!  As far as the pace thing, here's the deal -- if you stop working, why should I keep working?

"Nope, that's not how it works, Sug."  (She's right.  Since the back injury I've lost what little leg stregth I had.  It's lowering, really. Hopefully physical therapy will help with that.) We continue around the ring, making large circles and changing diagonals, with me concentrating on keeping her at a consistent marching pace, and giving her a slight hook-up when she falls behind my leg.  1...2...3...4...1..2...3...4.  We keep a steady marching rhythm, on the contact, past the gate, around the circle, across the diagonal. Trust me, it's easier said than done. The Sainted Mare grunted her displeasure with every step.'t 

Sophie and Cookie are clearly NOT
working hard at this moment.
Another issue we are working on is straightness.  You may think you're traveling about your arena on a straight line, UNTIL you slow down enough to really pay attention.  Then you realize you are actually weaving about like a drunk at a sobriety checkpoint.  So, I start concentrating on straightness, keeping her equally between my leg and hand.  Turns out we are still a couple of stumbling drunks.  OK, time to check everything else.  Am I using one leg or hand more than the other?  Am I weighting one seat bone more than the other?  Good grief, this walking thing is not only more of a physical workout than I expected, it's quite taxing mentally as well.  Reminds me of something Robert Dover once said in a Practical horseman article.  He talked about one of his most difficult lessons ever being about riding a correct circle.

That gave me a thought.  Next time we rode the arena had just been dragged, so I started doing large circles.  Turns out I haven't improved at all in geometry since high school.  My circles, rather than looking like the Olympic rings, looked more like gum squashed on pavement.  Thus began the assessment: Am I using too much inside rein?  Too little outside leg? All this thinking and assessing was very hard work, and Sug helpfully decided it was a good time to slow down and help Mom get her thoughts together. 

"Nope!  Off you go!  Mom can think and ride at the same time."

No, you can't. We always get into trouble when you start to think.

No, that's when I over-think. Big difference. Anyway, no one likes a smart-aleck, Sug.

So we worked on straightness.  We tried not to weave as we walked down the long side or up the diagonal.  We tried to remain straight in our transitions, both up and down.  Honestly, until I spent so much time in the walk paying attention to every little detail (or a good portion of them) I had NO IDEA how badly her haunches drift inside on the downward transitions, especially on the left rein.  We tried to fix this with a bit of shoulder fore, keeping it very mild as not to stress her injury.  Lo and behold, the shoulder for worked, and we had a straight halt.

Trust me, all this power-walking and straightness and working on transitions has been WORK!  Who knew?


  1. It's amazing how much work can be done at the walk.

  2. Pippi and I are going to start this when I get my butt back in the saddle. Got to get strength back somehow.

    1. LOL! It's not gonna give you the best cardio, but it will help with legs and buns of steel. Although I have A LOT more walking before THAT happens!

  3. Glad you have found a way to let this time be productive both for you and Sug. We readers will all be walking a lot more now.

    1. Thanks, Emme. Trust me, it's good fitness for both you and the horse. Good bonding time, too. But I would love a good canter!

  4. Straightness is so much harder at the walk.

    And good circles... as in actually round, are deceptively hard. Scratch an accurate 20m circle in freshly dragged arena surface. (One person stands in the center holding a lunge line and the other walks out the circle keeping even tension on the rope.) Then try to stay on the circle with your horse. And try not to look down the whole time. Dressage as masochism lol, but it's a great exercise.

    We'll be doing a lot of walk work until it rains again and firms up our arena. :)

    1. Dear Calm- Thank you for such a neat excercise! I gave it a try, and dang, it's a tough one! Thanks so much for suggesting. :)