The girls were brought up at noon for vaccines, as our vet was coming out do do all four horses. Gracie hasn't had her teeth done this year because she had not had any issues with food or the bit (she hasn't had her teeth done in over 2 years), so I asked Dr. H to check her teeth to see where she was at. She said G-Mare had a couple of sharp points but no signs of pinching/ulcerations in her cheeks and no malocclusions: she recommended having her done in the spring before we start heavier training. Lily is due for her teeth soon as well but I didn't think to have her checked...Lily usually gets done yearly, but later I'd be sorry I didn't ask the vet to check her as well.
Afterwards I tacked up Lily and left Gracie tied to the barnyard fence where I usually put her. G-Mare had a hay snack but was being VERY wiggly afterwards anyway...so I moved her over to the back field. The back field fence adjoins the paddock where I was going to be working so Gracie got tied there where I could keep an eye on her. Deja and Queenie would periodically make the rounds and keep her company but she also got to spend some time alone. Which is good for her: she is great about being tied in the run-in for a while after meals but I want that ability to translate to being tied everywhere.
Lily had been nervous throughout her handling so far, which I attributed to the wind. I longed her a bit in the paddock prior to mounting up then set her free to work at liberty so she could choose whatever gait she wanted while working in straight lines (safer with iffy footing than trying to work her on a circle on the longe). She changed directions whenever I requested and was able to canter and trot when she pleased.
I then called her in to me and mounted up.
My original plan had honestly been to just walk. To do all sorts of lateral work and suppling exercises, but at a walk. Lily, however, was a tense ball of nerves. So I decided to work on loosening her up by requesting gentle flexions to the inside of the paddock as we walked along the fenceline. I discovered a mare that was fine with bending to the right but not to the left. As in, she would not bend to the left at all. It felt like she was locked through her shoulder and neck on that side, so I tried working her on bending through the shoulder in a shoulder-in. No go. Leg yielding? No go. I adjusted my position, trying to figure out if I was crooked, but even when I really focused on how I was sitting, I could not get her to bend to the left and she was just getting more worked up. So I asked her to stop in a corner and for her to bring her nose back towards my toe in a lateral neck flexion (same kind as you would use for a one-rein stop.)
|Done like this|
So we continued and she actually was better about bending to the left afterwards, though there was still some resistance and this is when I wondered if there might not be a tooth issue. We did shallow zig-zag leg yields down the long sides of the paddock, then alternated with forward and backwards with just seat cues (she's getting really awesome with this exercise), and then we did a sort of square exercise, where I asked her to walk 2 step forwards, 2 steps sideways the left, 2 steps backwards, 2 steps sideways to the right, basically drawing a small square in the footing. We did this in both directions. We practiced turns on the haunches and side pass.
While her ability to bend to the left got much better, her nerves did not: instead of relaxing with all of this work like she normally would, she was actually getting more and more wound up. I won't deny I started to get frustrated several times, but each time simply focused on the music playing through my headphones (like I've said before, I always listen to music when riding alone, and this is one of the reasons: it helps to give me something else to think about other than frustration or fear.) I ultimately gave up and just sent her into a collected trot. I sat the trot all the way around the arena in both directions and through some large circles, but this still wasn't enough. She had all of this energy and it needed to go somewhere. I opened my hip angles and chest and sent her into a more forward trot, posting, and Lily surged into this lovely working trot that was kind of amazing, especially given the footing. I gave her the option of slowing down if she needed to but she chose to stay in that trot. We focused on straight lines in shoulder-fore with lots of changes of direction. She was coming through, lifting her back and arching her neck and I just followed, placing my hands where I wanted her to be and letting her find the contact. She tried curling behind the contact a few times throughout this exercise but I asked her to stay in a more upright carriage and she obliged.
And then we were trotting along the back fence of the paddock and she felt...fluid. She had felt awesome before, but it was like suddenly everything fell into place: correct slight inside bend, lifted withers, light in the contact with poll at the highest point, engaged hind end, all of that power held by the lightest touch of leg and reins. And here I asked her to halt and dismounted as the ultimate reward. In this manner, we ended on the best note possible.
It felt like we had been working for hours but when I looked at my watch, it had only been 25 minutes of under saddle work.
I loosened her girth and walked her out on foot. She then got set up with her dinner while I worked with Gracie, whom I chose to longe. The footing was slippery enough that I did not put the rig on her: I wanted her to be able to use her body for balance without any interference. I had her warm up at an easy trot in the paddock, then moved her to the top of the hill in the back field.
She was very "up" once in the back field: the wind was still whipping around and she kept looking at the back field fence and doing her dragon snort. She trotted around me but at a pretty frenetic pace, cutting slightly into the circle when she was closest to the back fence. The black plastic fencing was rippling in the gale and I think that's what was making her nervous. However, instead of trying to bolt, pull or prancing around with head up and tail flagged like she would have in the past, she stopped to let me know she felt insecure.
Video from late November, when we first started all of this longing conditioning.
This is Gracie in dragon mode: you can hear her dragon snorting and see how she's pulling on the rope. She used to flag her tail like this when she was super upset and paid absolutely no attention to either voice commands or the footing. This was another time when she was fearful of the black fencing. It was about a week after it had been installed.
So I turned the session into a simple groundwork exercise to see if I could get her trust in me to be greater than her fear of the fence.
Instead of asking her to continue trotting around me in a circle, which in this case would have just gotten her more riled up about the fence/wind, I had her longe from side to side: go to the left, halt immediately at my request, go to the right, halt, repeat. She became completely focused on me instead of on the fence. I then asked her to do a full circle around me, halting on command when she had completed the circle. Sometimes we would change direction after the halt, sometimes I would ask her to continue in the same direction so she wouldn't start anticipating my commands. She would toss her head and do a little hop with her front feet in protest when I asked her to trot again, but she was really good about doing as I asked and soon was staying almost perfectly out on the circle when going around the side closest to the fence.
I then made the exercise more challenging by requesting that she walk on the circle. No trotting. Every time she started to trot, I asked her to halt, then requested the walk again. Soon she was walking with her big swinging stride around me, head down. A couple of times she tried to walk away from me and head back in the general direction of the barn but she was reeled in each time. Goof. I finally walked her back to the paddock when she stayed on the circle around me.
In the paddock we did a few more minutes of halt/walk/trot transitions before calling it a day. Hand walking her back to the barnyard, I experimented with walking at different speeds and stopping to see if she would stay next to me. She did. She was completely tuned into me: she walked forward when I did, slowed down when I did, halted when I did...and then walked backwards when I did!! This last one was a HUUUUUGE success, as it was something that she didn't understand before. She only did it for 2 strides but this was more than enough for now. The point is of this exercise is that she stay right next to me no matter what I'm doing, without me having to verbally request it. Good, good mare!
All in all, it was another successful day with both of them, but yet another lesson in staying flexible both in your plan and your expectations of your horses when working with them. :)