Please join me in a journey back in time, back to the middle of July when I had a clinic that I haven't blogged about yet, mostly because I needed some time to get perspective. This was a clinic with Elaine, and it fell between my questionably beneficial clinic with Robin and the last show.
I have ridden with Elaine twice before (June 2016 and September 2016). I credit her with pretty much fixing my entire leg position in one lesson, so I was excited to see what we'd learn this time around. It was a two-day mid-week clinic but I was scheduled for evening slots so I was able to haul there after work.
At the start of Day One, I was impressed that Elaine remembered my name and my horse. Clinicians can have a lot of horse and riders pass by their eyes so I never expect to be remembered. Elaine had me warm-up as I wanted while she watched. I did my normal routine of lateral work, getting Kachina to move her hips, ribcage and shoulders in turn at the walk. I then did some circles and patterns around the arena at walk and trot. I was a bit stressed out to have my warm-up critiqued, but I was pleased because Kachina was listening well and I knew we were showing visible improvement from September.
Elaine seemed to agree because she brought me into the center and said that we were going to introduce a new concept now that Kachina was better at bit responses and rhythm which were the focus of previous clinics.
She launched into an explanation of a concept that was almost entirely new to me:
- horses have a natural curve to their spine
- horses can't comfortable change the curve of their spine until they are relaxed over their topline
- when warming up we shouldn't force them to bend against their natural curve until they are relaxed over their back and consistently carrying their head about even with their withers
- massaging the horse's ribcage with your heel or spur on the side that is inside the natural curve (so right side if the horse is bent right) will hit an acupuncture point that will encourage the horse to drop their head and relax over the back
- when warming up you should keep on large figures, and go with whatever side bend the horse picks but keep using the inside leg (relative to the spine) to get the horse to drop their head and relax
- if the horse tries to respond to your inside leg by speeding up or moving sideways, resist the movement by holding with your seat and arms, but don't pull
- work both directions but you will be counter-bent in one direction
- most horses have a side that they like to stay curved to more (I interpreted this to mean the horse's hollow side like Sandra has taught me), however, if the horse naturally changes the bend themselves, go with it and start using the new bend and new inside leg
- only start asking the horse to change bend once they have been keeping their head level and relaxed for a consistent amount of time
- this whole approach is especially important for warming up on show days when the horse may be more tense and may want to be counterbent to the outside to look at things: don't force a change in bend too early
I didn't quite buy the whole explanation (namely the acupuncture point that apparently is conveniently located exactly where your heel falls), but that doesn't mean the approach as a whole doesn't work. I've had good experiences with Elaine in the past and my general philosophy with trainers is to try their approach before knocking it (unless it's something obviously crazy). I was wanting to learn and work on something new and so I was excited to try this.
We started off by trying it at a halt. Elaine stood next to me and when Kachina tried to move she worked with me on developing the feel I needed in my reins and back to hold/resist but not pull. I found it hard but I was glad that this was part of the lesson because I know it's a skill I need to improve. Eventually Kachina (and myself) figured it out at the halt, so we moved onto walk. It definitely took some repetition to show Kachina what I was asking for, and I started out by wanting to pull too much on my inside (relative to the wall) rein when her natural curve was counterbent, but we both really did start figuring it out. Kachina stopped going forwards or sideways in response to my inside leg and she more quickly would move to put her head down. Kachina isn't much of a one-sided horse so she naturally changed the bend a few times and I found it pretty easy to switch and get the softness to the other side.
With this we graduated onto the trot. Doing the same thing at the trot went fairly well for our first attempt, but there were a few times where Kachina would kind of wiggle and her bend would change multiple times in the course of a few strides. Elaine observed that when this happened, my body would collapse into the holes that Kachina was creating by dropping her back out from under me on one side. I've never heard it explained in quite that way before but since I first got Kachina I've characterized her as a "tippy" horse, so I immediately identified with what she was saying. Elaine encouraged me to hold my upper body upright and pretend that I had crutches under my armpits to keep my shoulders level when Kachina "tipped". I really liked this visual and I did find that this made the "wiggly" moments shorter and smoother. Elaine also directed me that within the larger exercise, I should keep riding the original natural curve direction until Kachina picked a steady opposite bend (so don't change with her if she only changes for a stride). I felt like this was a big ambiguous as to when to change or not change, but I understood the basic premise. By the end of the lesson we were able to do large figures in both directions at walk and trot with a pretty steady head carriage (and all still on a pretty loose rein).
I was a little sad that we hadn't addressed the canter at all, but I was overall very pleased with the lesson, happy to have another tool to get Kachina to relax and stretch, and I was excited for Day Two.