A couple weeks ago, I had a really interesting opportunity. Back when we had both Oliver and Aiden for sale, a woman, M, came and looked at Aiden. She had gotten excited when she saw our photos because she recognized our gear and suspected we rode in the same style she does. She has an older mare who is blind in one eye and had some hard times in terms of health before she bought her. She was looking for a younger horse.
M told us she’s been taking lessons with Barb Gerbitz for a year. Barb Gerbitz lives in Illinois, and she follows the same horsemanship philosophy we do. (Except she’s actually a professional and is way more accomplished/experienced than we are.) M said Barb puts on clinics and does lessons around the area. She suggested we come to one some time.
Seeing as how we don’t have a truck and trailer just now, as much as we might like to take our horses to a clinic, it’s not currently in the cards for us. However, M got in touch a few weeks ago and told us Barb would be giving lessons for a day at a place just over an hour away from us, and wondered if we’d like to audit. We said yes, we would. And then a couple days later, M called and said someone had canceled at the last minute and asked if I would like to ride her horse, and have an hour long private lesson with Barb.
I couldn’t see a downside, so I said yes. But I must admit it was a tad intimidating. First off, I’ve never actually had a lesson in this style of horsemanship. I haven’t had any lessons at all in many, many years, and also I would be riding a horse wholly unknown to me.
But I figured it was nothing if not a learning opportunity.
My biggest struggle was that the horse was in a totally different place on the sensitivity spectrum than I’m used to. Particularly with the groundwork part of the lesson, I was not having much consistency with influencing the feet. Not feeling like I wanted to just come in with a lot of pressure on a horse that wasn’t mine, I got pretty stuck with a few things Barb was asking me to do. In retrospect, I wish I’d thought to use a flag.
Nevertheless, I got quite a bit out of the lesson. In some cases, what I learned is going to change what I do going forward. In others it meant revisiting something I do and deciding not to change. I’ll try to break things down a bit for easy consumption.
Feel and Groundwork
At one point Barb was pointing out that I left a lot of slack in the rope when I ask the horse to move off on the ground. She suggested I shorten the rope and put more pressure on the horse’s head when asking the horse to go forward. I got a bit confused here, because I’ve heard so many teachers say never to “pull” the horse forward. So I asked about that, and Barb said you aren’t pulling the horses, you are offering a feel. She said what you want is to offer the horse the same feel on the ground as in the saddle, and that it can be easy to become overly reliant on body language when doing groundwork. The problem with that is body language goes away once you’re on board. For Barb, the point of groundwork is to build a foundation for what she’s going to do once she’s mounted.
After we got back with our horses, I turned a critical eye on how we do our groundwork. While I definitely don’t rely on body language to get most things done, there are a couple instances (like asking for the front) where I wasn’t offering the horse any kind of feel on the rope before moving the horse with my body energy. We tested this on all our horses, and they will all step in any direction off a super light feel, no matter what our bodies are doing. So in the end I concluded this isn’t actually a problem I have, but will certainly be something I’ll think about the next time I’m handling a less responsive horse.
Right when I got on, Barb corrected my hand position when I asked the horse to flex. This is something I’ve gone back and forth on over the last few years. Currently, I’m very focused on keeping my hands close to the horn at all times. (I constantly hear Richard Caldwell in my head, saying, “Always pull to the horn.” Barb was saying this particular horse didn’t have the feel and education to be able to understand a pull from close to horn, so I needed to get wider to help the horse.
I understand that argument, and I’ve heard it before. Still, I think I don’t entirely agree. If a horse is having trouble, I will take my hand out to the side at the start of the pull wide before bringing it in, but I still want to end up near the horn. I guess, for me, I feel like a rider with good feel can help the horse with a subtle touch and a good release, rather than holding a hand way out to the side. I also feel like building a habit into myself I’m going to have to change later doesn’t have much benefit. In any case, all our horses are pretty darn proper in their flexes and don’t need extra support in that element. But perhaps next time I’m spending a lot of time on a green horse, I’ll go back to a wider hand position.
Staying on the Rail
Once I rode off, I started to feel a little more relaxed. The horse I was riding didn’t have much responsiveness to my legs initially, but after a few laps, that was getting better. The horse had a pretty strong desire to come off the rail in places, and when that happened my leg was no kind of barrier at all. Barb had me block this by applying pressure to both reins and pushing the horse back over with my inside leg. In the hackamore, many of the best practitioners say to never never use both hands at the same time. So this isn’t a place I naturally go right now as I mostly ride in the hackamore. It worked though. Soon we were walking and trotting and loping on the rail with the nose tipped in, and the feet (mostly) going where I wanted them.
Barb also pointed out that my inside hand had a tendency to stray over the to the wrong side of the neck. It is true I was definitely doing this when the horse was coming off the rail. After I got home and back on our horses, I tried to figure out if it’s a real habit or just something that was cropping up in that situation. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to be something I do when I ride our horses. I think the problem was I’m used to being able to tip our horses noses in with light pressure and yield them off the leg without needing both hands. That wasn’t working on this horse, so I was straying into “lift the shoulder zone.” So, again, definitely something good to think about and watch out for.
Life and Soft Feel
Towards the end of the ride, Barb had me ask for a soft feel at the walk. This isn’t something the horse I was riding appeared to have much practice with, so it involved me hanging in there for a while to wait before giving a release. I had watched the owner have her own lesson with Barb earlier, and Barb had pointed out a pretty pronounced rooting problem. The horse only rooted on me once, right when I got on, and then that went away for the duration of the ride.
I was a little concerned it would come back when I asked for a soft feel. It didn’t. Still, though I think the horse was feeling pretty with me by that point, it was taking a long time before she’d soften to the bit. Barb suggested I get her life up more before asking. I tried that, getting the horse in a nice, energetic walk before asking for the soft feel. When I did that, things softened way up.
Since getting home, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. All our horses have places where they die a bit and lose momentum, and this always has a negative impact on their head position, balance, timing, and responsiveness. So I’ve been focused more lately on fixing the impulsion problem first, and only coming in with my hands once I have some better energy to work with. I’ve seen some good results.
All in all, it was a great opportunity to meet Barb and learn from her, and I’m super thankful for M’s generosity in letting me ride her horse. It’s always useful to have a someone with more knowledge and experience watch you ride, even (or perhaps most especially) when you’re out of your element. I’d like to get some feedback from Barb on our own horses someday. Who knows, maybe Santa will bring us a truck and trailer for Christmas.