Being Firm to Be Soft

Novels for Horse-Lovers

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The last month or so, Brian has been using Steen as a lesson horse. This is a little odd for me, because mostly I have not been around during his lessons. There is something distinctly strange about staying home while Brian heads off to the barn to hang out with someone else while that someone else rides my horse.

Brian’s student is not a total beginner, but she’s had quite a few years away from riding. And even when she was riding before, she didn’t ride like we do. So she’s got a pretty steep learning curve ahead of her right now. She seems to be learning fast, but usually after Steen gets used in a lesson, the next time I get on him, there is a little bit of a need for me to recalibrate him. Of course, I haven’t wanted to be too hard on him, since he’s good enough to carry a rider who is not that great at communicating yet and be safe for her, even if he doesn’t always know what exactly she wants him to do.

So between the bad bale saga, my fall, and now the lessons, my rides on Steen lately have been a bit on the ‘meh’ side. But last Sunday I got on determined to work a little harder. My main goal for Steen this year is to get him consistently going in the two-rein, and to do that, we have a few things that still need to be refined.

On Sunday, we worked a lot on lope/trot transitions. Steen is horrible at these. Not only does he just not seem to feel me when I start posting to tell him lope-time is over, when I pick up on him at all and break him out of the lope with my hands, he typically proceeds to charge around out of balance and with a lot of weight on the hackamore. So I reasoned the first step was to get him softer there. I asked him for a canter, went around the arena for a while, and asked for a trot. When he fell onto my hands, I pulled. When he stayed heavy, I kept pulling. He trotted, walked, stopped, and started backing, all still braced, all still heavy. I hate having to do this to him, but I kept on pulling until finally he softened, turned loose, and started moving back without leaning on me.

Then I let him rest. Then we tried again.

The next time the transition was better, I still had to pull him all the way to backing, but he softened up a lot faster.

The time after that, he got soft walking. And the next time, he started trotting as soon as he felt me start to post. When I asked for a soft feel, he was instantly soft while still trotting. From there, we went on to have a dozen nearly perfect canter/trot transitions.

Of course, now that I have done this, I can’t understand why I didn’t do it before. Steen is accomplished enough now that he understands what a pull means, and will hunt for a way to avoid one. But sometimes I think it can be so easy to look at the problem in a way that is too big. In this case, I thought his transitions were bad, but really the problem was he was ignoring me while he was loping. As soon as I gave him a reason to remember I was there, the problem disappeared.

I rode him again today. In spite of being used for Brian’s lesson again on Friday, he didn’t feel off at the start. I was a little hard on him again, though. His lope transitions were good from the start, but he was coming off the rail a lot at all gaits. I have a tendency to get in the habit of micromanaging him when he does this, because all it takes is a little twitch of the reins to keep him on the line I want. But I don’t want to have to twitch the reins to keep him on track. I want him to stay between my legs, always.

I decided that would be our project for the ride. I developed a plan, and applied it. I’d ask him to trot straight. When he’d start to sag in, I’d block him with my leg. If he moved through the leg, I’d up the pressure by several notches, beating him up with leg and hand until he got back where he was supposed to be. He didn’t like it, but a few minutes later, he was listening to my legs as good or better as he ever has. And he stopping trying to come off the rail.

So, while our last two rides were a little on the challenging side, they were both dealing with things I have left unattended mostly out of laziness. I do feel bad for Steen sometimes, because he’s put up with me learning so much by testing it out on him.

These two days have also adjusted the way I think a little. I used to think you would eventually get to a place with a horse where the need to be firm would go away entirely. This is how I’ve been riding Steen lately, and I think the overall effect has been to make him a bit duller all around. I think without the occasional firm correction, the softness also decreases, and both ends of the spectrum start to disappear.

Of course, my primary goal is always keeping firmness to a minimum, but these two rides were just a reminder that being firm is necessary sometimes, and being firm but fair leads to a softer, happier horse all around. Both rides I only had to correct Steen about three times before he got into a totally different frame of mind.

All in all, Steen is clearly not suffering. He loves people, loves his job, loves it when he gets things right. After the hard stuff both these rides, he settled in and understood what I was on him about. And afterwards, he was proud of himself. Both rides we ended with a sense of accomplishment that’s been a little lacking for us lately.

Horseback Hours YTD: 11:20

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