After Piper left us, we lapsed into a horse lull. Part of it was just the sheer relief of finding her a good home at last. So many years of worrying came so suddenly to an end, and we found ourselves just wanting to lay low for a bit.
There were other factors too. The weather in Iowa has been very, very bad. Work always gets busy this time of year. Steen has had his sunburn. But really, if I’m being honest, we were mostly just kind of out of energy for the horses for a little while.
To add to our lower-than-usual motivation levels, our recent struggle (if you can call it that) with Steen and Laredo is they are both super duper broke. They are broke to the point that any ride you don’t go into with some intention can start to feel rather rote. It’s perfectly possibly to have a perfectly enjoyable ride on either of them without needing to work on anything in particular.
But being lazy doesn’t lead to good results
So our rides for a while had become a little bit … uninspired. This despite the fact that we all could stand to work to improve in plenty of areas. Particularly when we ride them less, Steen and Laredo both have their ways in which they backslide. For Laredo that often means lower-than-ideal energy levels and a bit a tendency to fall in during turns. For Steen it often means being a little too forward and trying to anticipate what I’m going to ask for before it’s time.
In our last few rides, Brian and I have been talking about how to work on these wildly different issues constructively. After all, our horses are rusty because we haven’t been putting in the time to keep them fine-tuned. So it’s hardly fair to fault them for that. At the same time, though, I can get in this mental rut with Steen where I can get him to do whatever I want, all the time, so if he’s out of shape and I’m feeling lazy, I can sometimes just let a few things slide if they are a teeny bit sloppy. This leads to more things becoming sloppy, of course. Which can eventually lead to rides that are like low-key frustrating for both of us but in which nothing goes actually wrong in the least.
We’re kind of like an old married couple
Basically we get to this dynamic: Steen does something a bit off. I correct him. He shapes up. We go on. Then the thing happens again. I correct him again. He shapes up. We go on. Rinse and repeat. The most common manifestation of this is when we’re walking or trotting a circle. There is often one spot on the circle where he’ll want to bulge out. So we get to that spot, and I block the bulge. Usually I can accomplish this with just a light squeeze with one calf. That’s enough to prevent him from deviating from the line.
But the thing is, if I didn’t block him there, he would deviate. Which means he’s not holding himself properly on the circle. And while this seems like a really minor thing, having to shore him up at one point of every circle is a form of nagging. It’s annoying for me. I don’t doubt it’s annoying for him too.
Laredo has similar things. So recently Brian and I were discussing this, and trying to find a fix. I can’t remember who said what, but we came to the realization that what both Steen and Laredo were doing in certain moments was essentially leaning into the light pressure of a leg correction.
(Don’t) lean on me
One of the things I love about the hackamore is the challenge of using it well. It’s super important to never let the horse lean on the bosal. I have paid a lot of attention to that for a lot of years, and I feel like I’m decently accomplished at never holding pressure. But suddenly I realized I was nevertheless giving Steen something to lean on. It was just my leg instead of my hand.
So what’s the easiest way to keep a horse from leaning on pressure? Take the pressure away.
Brian and I set out to test our new theory. Steen and I returned to our circle. I put him in the bend I wanted using my hips, supported him with a light drape of my legs like always. And we walked. Then we got to our bulge point. As expected, he began to drift off the line. I did not increase the pressure of the leg that could have blocked him. Instead I let him bust through the passive barrier, and then I gave him a solid bump with that calf to send him back onto the proper line. Before, his lean and my block were invisible. This time, both his departure and my correction were obvious.
Consequences are important
Steen loves knowing where my legs are. He will yield to a wiggle or a light tap of toe or heel or calf. But he hates being kicked. Hate hate hates it. He’s an extremely sensitive and emotional horse. So one light bump was enough to upset him a little. But a bump happens once, and then it’s over. A horse can’t lean on a bump. So we got back on our circle and kept going.
Then we got to the bulge point again. Again, he left the line my hips were telling him to take. Again, I bumped him. Again, he did not like that.
But the third time around the circle, lo and behold, no bulge.
Time to break the habit
Brian was having similar results with Laredo. So we spread the realization to other things. Over the last few rides we’ve both stopped using our lower legs for steering entirely, leaving that to the hips. Lower legs and hands we are using for correction only. Everything else comes from the seat.
It’s an adjustment. I’m surprised to note how often I find myself tempted to squeeze a bit here and block a bit there: to micromanage Steen with little nags of my legs. But as I give Steen less to lean on, the more he has to hold himself where he should be.
It’s early days. We’re still experimenting with the idea. But I feel like this is a seemingly small realization that could prove to have been holding us back on a lot of things for a good long while.