May 1st: The morning started off lazy, much to my relief (and Kirsten’s, I am sure!). We didn’t really get ourselves ready to get moving until 9:00 or so. Kirsten warmed Mick up so that I could get on and ride, and so I set to work trying to find the same position on a different horse with different patterns that needs different support. Everything is different, but only in how it is dealt with, not the actual position. I discovered that I may have been blocking Mick’s movement on the left side somehow with my body. I wasn’t sure if it was due to being locked up or too heavy, but either way Mick was resisting moving to that side. When I became aware of it, and thought about using the left side to pull up as much as the right side as I pushed down to move the ball things started to flow easier. I had to work to try to recreate the same sensation of having the wide feet to help me find the rest of my lower leg and then thigh. When we switched to the left it became more of a challenge to manage the swaps of the ball since Mick is not so stuck in that direction. It means that his balance is stronger, but it also ups the challenge for the rider as the rider can’t get stuck in a correction either. I finally figured out that the key was to make sure that the horse stays balanced is to simply ride straight. Genius, I know. Simply by working to create the same feel of wide feet, and the lower leg and thigh sensations no matter what Mick was doing helped him to find balance. If you don’t let your position change, then the horse can’t go out of balance because they meet a wall ever time they try to push through your seat and leg on either side. It means that small corrections are almost not corrections at all if you stay in the right place. The horse simply can’t move you out of the way.
We wrapped up there and headed around the corner to Quail Hollow Farm again to work Hercules and Condessa again. The two hours didn’t seem quite as grueling as the day before, and I spent the time looking at other details that I hadn’t been as focused on in the first session. The pain line was still there from the first day, and his muscles seemed to have retained the same amount of jiggle that we achieved the day before, which was really positive. I didn’t feel that over the course of the two hours we were able to achieve much more change, but there were more good steps of tracking in line and not quite as many dives out of the circle as there had been the first day. Working to the left he was tracking to the inside and behind his front feet with both his left and right; going to the right it was harder for him and he plowed out of the circle harder and more often on that side and his right hind tracked to the inside and behind his front but his left hind was tracking almost up to his front foot on that side. He pooped twice, and then acted like he had to pee, but ended up pooping instead, and then finally peed once. The poor boy’s muscles still had him all confused, but it was a positive change that he wasn’t letting go so much and was finding some balance again.
We finished up there and headed back home to chill out for a while. The day had been really relaxed, but still getting things done and it was a nice break from the hectic pace from the day before. Kirsten went to lay down for a while to reset her lower back and sent Gabby and I out to clean a row of palms on the side of the yard. Both of us got lost in all the fronds and trees, there were times I couldn’t even see her at all. The trees looked so much happier when we were finished, like they could breathe again. We drug all the fronds down to the pile at the edge of the driveway and left them for the weekly pickup.
Kirsten came back out refreshed, and was really happy with the results of our work. Since the sun was low, we got Prima all set up to ride and Kirsten warmed her up while Gaby and I watched. It turns out that Prima was the only horse of the day with any impulsion. All the horses we worked earlier in the day were slow and pokey, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it sure made a difference when we got started with Prima. She was offering the canter to Kirsten, so she took it and worked her at the faster speed. I was able to watch her position in the trot and really clarify where her low back should be, and how she ‘held in her guts’ as well as how still her lower leg really was. Once she was warmed up Kirsten traded and let me get on board.
I started to feel out her balance at the walk to find out how I was feeling and how she was doing. We started off to the right (as is our habit for some reason, probably because that is easiest coming from the mounting block) and worked to find the same sensations at the walk again. Kirsten encouraged us to move into the trot pretty quickly since Prima was already warmed up. She worked with me to help me get organized from the top downward this time, rather than my feet and legs upward. Putting the two “halves” together helped to gain another level of refinement for my body position. We took some time to really focus on how to organize for the rising trot and where my body should be in order to optimize my balance and position. Using the body’s structure is the key the rising trot – the movement is all based upon using the bones centered around flexing at the joints rather than using muscle. The easy habit (as is the pattern for most people) is to lift from the shoulders, rather than simply rising out of the hip joint. Kirsten showed the example of kneeling flat on the ground, with your feet flat down, and sitting down on your feet. If you rise out of your hip joints using your quads to pull and glutes to push, the shoulders don’t move. If you “cheat” and pull up from your shoulders, the upper body moves, and the back ends up hollowing out dramatically. The same is true on the horse. The ideal position is rising using the quads and glutes which takes less effort than using the upper body muscles. The other key to this position is holding the guts in, and keeping the shoulders slightly forward. Then the “rise” becomes simply propelling the shoulders upward, and the hips swing forward and back underneath the shoulders, which remain steady but light. I experimented with this positioning working at the walk and then moving into the trot to find the comfortable balance. It is harder than it seems, but the big keys for being effective for me are keeping the gut in and keeping the shoulders forward. This position felt awkward and out of balance at first, but became more natural as I continued to try to find it and hold onto the feeling.
I quickly discovered that when I had it right, I could easily handle the reins, ask for the bend and then get her head to drop. I could also handle using the whip to really ask her to move her ball off my leg and shift her out on the circle. She responded by attempting to bounce into the canter for me, which meant that I was largely in the correct position in the first place. When Kirsten saw this, she encouraged me to go into the canter to explore the balance so that I could work on using the speed to improve the trot. I had to do a few laps with Kirsten clarifying what I should do in order to prepare for the canter before my first attempt, and the first attempt was pretty much a mess. I expected this, and I am sure that Prima was well aware of just how unprepared I really was. Gotta start somewhere though. I managed to get about two strides before she was back into the trot again, which I was also totally unprepared for. Kirsten encouraged me to try again, and so as we came around the circle heading towards the front side of the yard, I asked again. That side of the circle was nice and “safe” since there wasn’t really anywhere for her to go if she or I got off track, she had to continue around the circle. The opposite side was the side with the rest of the back yard, and so Prima could have easily headed off into the yard rather than continuing on the circle. The second and subsequent attempts slowly improved as I found my position and also found how to keep asking her to keep going. Getting pitched forward when she hesitated as I lost my balance and then asked her to speed up and getting pitched back was even more dramatic at the canter than it had been at the trot. I was struggling to maintain myself, but Prima takes such good care of riders that when she feels the rider get out of balance she automatically slows down. This is a gift, except when you’re trying to work on getting into balance, and you’re well aware that you’re out of balance and so the slow down only makes it more difficult to regain the correct position. I was finally gaining some consistency, which was helping to boost my confidence. Kirsten really worked with me to put my shoulders more forward, and ride the rise and fall of the canter ‘like a jockey’ to feel allow my hip joints to open and close. Feeling as if I was way too far forward was disconcerting, but Prima’s response was very clear: she went smoother, and maintained the gait more consistently, and a few times I was even able to get her into a stretch at the canter.
I also was able to find a better weight distribution between my feet and my seat. Apparently I was carrying no weight in my feet, which meant that the stirrups slipped all over my foot, which is never a good thing. When I loaded my feet more and kept thinking of keeping them flat, I was able to have more flex in my hips and hold my position better. When my foot got too light and slipped forward into the stirrup I found that I was squeezing too much with my thighs. Hold the gut in, keep the back soft and the shoulders forward. Working from the top down helped to organize my leg position all that much better. It made me realize that at this stage it feels like a million moving parts trying to all function at once, and at first it feels like trying to juggle too many strange objects all at once when you don’t even know how to juggle two tennis balls.
We dropped back into the trot from the canter and were able to find position 2A and ALMOST 3 and were able to hold it for several strides at a time instead of it being a fleeting step or two. It was really nice to really be able to experience the correct postures for more than a step at a time.
The other change that I made was wearing my knee brace for the first time when riding. For whatever reason it did seem to help, and I could not tell if it was only a mental thing as opposed to really providing more support, but it didn’t matter. It is hot and sticky, but it works.
How is it that a new problem can help overcome an old problem? Ironically, the solution for many problems we face with horses, often lies in cultivating the opposite problem; one that is uncharacteristic or not normal for the horse. The process of finding balance...