Though it is a slow start, we are slipping into winter. It’s been cold and rainy the last few days, and I have been less than motivated. Mostly I’ve been either taking care of 8 million things around the house or lying on the couch reading/watching Jessica Jones on Netflix.
I am getting out on and off though, and last night I got home and my husband said “go to the barn. I’ll have dinner ready when you get back,” which I think was a ploy so he could spend the next three hours playing Assassin’s Creed on our new TV, but I’ll take it.
So: longeing. I wanted to make it productive rather than simply stretching, so I set up poles in a “circle of death” exercise.
I just clipped the line onto his halter and focused on getting a consistent forward stride, improving his tracking up, and improving the way he used his body over the poles. We started with five minutes of walk each way, then I moved him to the other half of the ring and let him trot without poles for three minutes each way. His trot has been sticky lately, so I let him jump into canter when he wanted to, buck around a little bit to loosen up when he wanted to, and focused on the end game of a smooth, consistent trot at the end.
Tristan may not have fancy gaits, but when he clicks in, consistency is definitely one of his biggest assets. Given proper support in the form of driving aids and framing he will move those hind legs like a metronome.
Then we moved back over to the poles to work over them in the trot. I watched his legs to see how he was using them, and the muscles of his back, and of his stomach. It was really gratifying to see that he tightened his stomach, lifted his back, raised his tail, and dropped his neck. His ears stayed pricked throughout as he hunted down the next pole. He loves jumping so much, I sometimes think pole work that I leave him to figure out – like longeing over them – is a partial substitute.
Like the consistency of his hind end, he’s always been a horse that likes to have a say in figuring out his footwork. When we jumped regularly, I never counted strides. (I know, hunters, I’m sorry, but I am telling it like it is!) I focused on getting him put together, focused on the quality of the gait I was riding, focused on keeping him straight, and let him figure out what he wanted for striding. He would usually flub the first few fences but as I worked harder on getting a better quality horse to present, he would start to get into it and would adjust his own striding as we approached. Every time. If I trusted him, he figured it out.
He started off a little stilted and not quite figuring out his placement. He would get to the pole on the same wonky striding every time, placing his left hind right at the base of the pole, then hitching a little bit awkwardly as he didn’t have a good angle to lift his right hind over it. Every single time, his left hind would almost tap the pole, his right hind would have to swing awkwardly, his head would raise, and he would look slightly frustrated.
Then, he started to shorten his stride before the poles one stride out, which resulted in some missteps and kicking the poles. Then he started two strides out, and once he started to figure it out he very quickly had the whole thing figured out and was absolutely nailing the striding, getting the pole perfectly in the middle of his stride and carrying an elevated, more swinging gait through the entire circle.
This happened in about 3 minutes at the trot. When I swapped to the left it took him less than 30 seconds to adjust his striding again and he just sailed through it without any mistakes. I asked him for just two circles at the canter, and he was so into it he would’ve kept going, though he was a bit tired.
Give me a thinking, figuring-it-out horse any day of the week, you guys. I will put up with an awful lot, but I can’t abide stupidity, especially deliberate obtuseness. I have never met a stupid mustang yet. (Obnoxious, opinionated, spooky, deadheaded, yes, but never, ever stupid.)
Total time elapsed was about 25 minutes, but it was a hugely fruitful exercise for both of us.