A valuable life lesson

After a quiet week last week, I feel like we are properly back at it so far this week. Gareth and who ever his other blustery friends where, kept us safely grounded at home, but now we are fighting back. After a good hilly hack on Monday, we hired the local arena on Tuesday and had a really productive session.

I was really pleased to meet the arena owner for the first time face to face on Tuesday, she had had a fortnights holiday and had whipped everyone into shape for my visit this time. No longer littered with blown over jumps, the arena was a much more green, 5 year old user, friendly environment. This was our third trip to this venue and immediately Dominica felt much more relaxed this time. I’m sure the absence of the jumps helped with this, despite her never really acknowledging them, not having to avoid them is one less thing to worry about in the quest to try and help her learn to control her flamboyant dancing style. For the first time I was really able to work constructively in walk for a good 10-15 minutes because she was so relaxed and focused in her brain. As I’ve mentioned before, walk halt transitions have been a bit of a no go area, nothing bad happens, she just really struggles currently to stand still for more than a nano-second. As I’ve learned trying to improve the other paces, the key to helping her seems to be by starting doing a lot of almost transitions. I try to do the transitions from pace to pace, but with the main focus being on keeping her through and soft, rather than the focus being to get to next pace. As soon as she looses focus, balance, comes above the bit, tightens in her back etc, I push forward again, rather than allowing her to do the transition badly. This has really worked in the other paces and the session on Tuesday is the first time I have been able to work her in this way in walk, especially right at the start of a session. I think it is actually the first time I have ever ridden a correct, intentional halt transition on her and remained stationary,ever! So it feels like a huge milestone.

With the canter work being our other grey area, the rest of my session was aimed at trying to work on that. Again it seems to be the more I can keep her soft and relaxed and through in the trot canter transition, the better the subsequent canter is. For the first ten minutes I worked on a 20metre circle doing 3 to 4 transitions per circle. Only asking for a couple of canter steps and a couple of trot steps. Trying to guide her to keep her straightness, remembering the words of Isabell Werth, about the outside being the most important in the canter and also trying to keep my balance as best I can, in order to help her find her own balance through the transition. As I have mentioned before, the first canter step on the way up is enormous, as is the first trot step on the way down. My most important job is to allow her to do this, even though its really hard to maintain my balance, she undoubtedly has the biggest natural step of any horse I’ve ridden to date. It’s not about controlling the size of the step, to make it easier for me, at the moment it’s about giving her the freedom to do what she needs to do and by building her confidence by not interfering. As she gets more confident and physically stronger, these initial steps will become naturally more controlled by her, but its a personal process and one she needs to figure out in her own time, with my support.

After working on the circle for 10 minutes and having a good walk break, I then moved on to working on cantering down the long sides with transitions on the short sides. In previous blogs I have mentioned that I feel its now time for me to be stricter with myself about picking a line and sticking too it in order for her to progress. As I mentally nudge towards the idea of a show, I need to actually be able to canter down the long side of an arena in a straight line! Cantering on a circle as we all know is easier for all horses. The curving line helps them to keep their balance more easily, as to stay on the turning line, they naturally need to keep themselves more condensed with the hind leg stepping under, which makes the whole thing much more controlled. Cantering down the long side particularly ona youngster with a naturally long step, can feel a bit like the flood gates have been opened and the grand national has begun. Dominica has been seen to do a 60metre long side in 4 strides, so leaving behind the comfort of the circle and heading to the race track was always going to be entertaining! To start with for this exercise I included a circle at A and C, to help her regain her balance before repeating the line. I think the work previously doing transitions plenty on the circle had helped to give her more confidence and also meant that the first canter steps where getting smaller and so didn’t rush off down the long side as much as I was expecting. She actually handled the new exercise better than I expected. On the right rein (probably to do with me as I’m naturally crooked this way) she did want to curl a bit to the outside and would break half way down the long side. I tried to really focus on my own position this way, keeping my right shoulder back and also including an additional circle at B and E this way. Although it wasn’t perfect and some of the lines felt a bit hurried and loosing balance, they did get better as we went on and she became more relaxed and confident with the exercise. We probably only managed just under 5 minutes of this each way, before I could tell she was getting tired and so we had a little trot stretch and left the session there. I’m really happy to listen to the youngsters like this. Its the first time I have really tested and cracked down on her straightness on the straight in canter like this and so it’s no surprise that she got tired really quickly. As I’ve said a million times before, this is a 10 year plus journey, if it takes the next year to perfect cantering in beautiful balance down the long side, because she only has the strength to work on it for five minutes each schooling session, then that is how long it will be allowed to take.

I learned such a valuable life lesson on Tuesday. I did spend last week feeling angry that the weather was interrupting our progress. After five days of hacking in walk, I was really fed up. However on Tuesday I was eating my words. After probably close to ten days since our previous schooling session, Dominica was able to pick up work wise where we had left off and felt much stronger and straighter than the last time I schooled her. I know this makes sense, she might not have been in the school, but the hill hacking is exactly what she needs in order to build the core muscle strength she needs to improve her work in the school. Its a frustrating situation for me to have no arena currently at home, but I actually felt grateful on Tuesday night. If I had had an arena last week, I probably would have been tempted to school her four times. Instead she did low impact walk hacking and she was still able to make an improvement in her schooling capability over a 10 day period, without having actually set foot in a school. Its not about hammering the youngsters in the school, its about giving them support and confidence, but most importantly the time they need to develop on their own. Of course I already knew this deep down, but its so easy to get caught up in an intensity of needing to work hard to get results. This process Im going through just now has really hammered home that it’s about the work you are doing, not the amount of it.

Today, Wednesday I returned to school in the arena with my lovely friend who took all the pictures and videos featured in this blog so thank you to her! Dominica was again much more relaxed and confident from the outset. I worked in a very similar way to the previous session and felt glad that I had been able to,two days in a row. She picked up where she left off and in both the walk halt work and the canter she had made significant improvement. She was able to canter in pretty good balance down the long side, with transitions on the short sides, without much need for circles any where. She is so naturally talented and has an amazing work ethic. She always surprise’s me with the amount of progress she can make in a short space of time. Having recently found that she had over reached in the stable, Im convinced she watches you tube videos with a torch under her duvet at night and practises round her stable! I am a lucky, lucky girl.

Tuesday’s schooling session was about 35 minutes from getting on to getting off, she felt more tired today and so we only did a maximum of 25 minutes. Tomorrow I plan to have a very quiet, gentle hack and depending on how she’s feeling another schooling session on Friday……I will let y’all know!

Aimee x

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