A Change Brings Me Back to Start

Debbie called me earlier in the week asking if I could postpone my lesson until 12:30 P.M. as she wanted to be with her grandson as he got ear-tubes Wednesday morning. Since it was going to be cold early in the day, and it was going to be even colder later in the week I agreed. We had never had a lesson where he had been turned out for hours previously so I was interested in seeing if Cinnabar would listen to me better or move better under me.

He did not.

This was his third week of having the single-jointed egg-butt titanium coated “rainbow” bit in his mouth. The first ride—he did not establish contact of his own free will, so I combed the reins and he reached down for the bit. For the next ride he reached out for contact willingly, kept contact willingly and seemed to understand what I was trying to establish with him. But during this ride, at a different time, and with another horse coming into the ring halfway through, Cinnabar acted like contact was a foreign language again. He was not bad, he obeyed me throughout the ride as long as I took his confusion into account, but under my seat and through my hands I could feel that the previous progress had disappeared. I think he was confused, after 4 weeks of working with me earlier in the morning I think he put me in a category of early, easily understandable, and comfortable non-strenuous rides under me, in contrast to the other group of people who ride him in the afternoons, some good, some still learning, but CONFUSING to the poor horse, less comfortable to carry, and he has to work a lot harder during the afternoon lessons.

So poor Cinnabar really did not know what to do, so he went to his default—being a good horse, letting his riders have a relatively pleasant ride, but being confused and sort of scared of what he might have to go through from the less knowledgeable riders. Some horses need TIME to figure stuff out, and I had not ridden him long enough so he feels like he understands me no matter what else is going on out there. I could FEEL his confusion under my seat—his back did not “swing”, he approached the bit as a possible source of pain, and he sucked back just a little bit, he LOOKED like he was keeping contact but his tongue and lower jaw did not reach for the bit, and true, effective contact did not happen.

I dialed back my expectations. Off a sagging rein I would creep my hand toward his mouth, do a light leg aid, and accept whatever he gave me for a few strides, then I loosened my reins back to sagging. I kept my hands following his mouth even with the sagging or loose reins so that there was no danger of any harsh action from the bit as he moved his head at the walk. He ended up giving me brief episodes of contact willingly, but then Coach, the OTTB that I rode earlier and fell off of, entered the ring with a new rider, a recent addition to Debbie's riders, a young lady who, glory be, actually had experience riding thoroughbreds. Coach was fine with her.

With Coach in the ring Cinnabar was back into the mold of his afternoon group lessons, and I stopped trying to get good contact. I still worked on big and small curves wandering around the jumps, and on extending his walk a little bit. With Coach in the ring Cinnabar was willing to extend his stride a little bit more than usual and I praised him highly. I was still not getting Coach to “swing” his back, but his back had loosened up some, as in I could feel his back muscles working a little bit instead of sitting on a stiff board. Because his back muscles were working some I could feel the drive from each hind leg better in my seat.

Every lesson horse I have gotten up on since I started riding other people's horses has come to me confused, confused about what the aids mean, confused about what people want from him (or her, mares can take this a little bit more personally), and often confused about their job in life. The experienced beginner lesson horses know their job, and while it may take me a while to convey to them that I am different, once they understand my aids they tend to relax under me. But the other horses I work with, the ones that come to Debbie with no training at a higher level and the ones that have not decided that carrying riders in lessons is their job in life, they have no knowledge with which to understand me and my demands. Because they are confused they do not relax under me, and it may take me several months (at 30 minutes a week) before they relax enough to learn that being ridden can be a pleasure instead of a session of low-grade torture.

These horses give me the best answer that they have figured out, the one that gives them the quickest relief from the rider. They may learn to halt, but it is often an inverted halt with the head high up in the air often with a gaping mouth, hey when they finally stop they get rewarded for stopping like that when their rider loosens the reins finally. When the rider uses their legs to get the horse moving they often “jerk” into the next gait instead of smoothly flowing from one gait to the other, but at least the rider stops kicking. When these horses stiffen their backs against the assaults from the riders bouncing around in the saddle they do not get any relief, so they stiffen their backs even more to protect themselves because it hurts. These horses, in self defense, turn themselves into unpleasant rides and most people completely give up on turning them into decent riding horses.

Well I did not give up on Glow, Mia, Mick, or Bingo, and I am not going to give up on Cinnabar (and I WILL be getting back up on Coach later.) These horses cannot help being confused, darn it NO ONE has ever taken the time to really explain what a rider wants! They have never been rewarded for being a good riding horse, their confusion is punished actively or passively every ride, they get fearful about their riders, and a vicious circle starts, ending up with a horse that, no matter how promising the horse looks, works at a level lower than their potential.

All I can do is to give clear, well timed aids, keep my seat light, my fingers supple and following their mouths, and reward the horse for obeying me, and the horses improve.

Next week I am back at my regular lesson time (I hope) so Cinnabar may be less confused. If he does not start off by willingly taking up contact I will probably comb the reins again to remind him that the bit need not be an instrument of pain. I will keep my seat light in the saddle to give his back muscles room to work. I will NOT escalate my aids if he does not obey willingly because it is MY FAULT that he still does not totally understand what I am “saying” yet (it is always my fault, never the horse's fault.) Sooner or later Cinnabar will relax, look at me with confidence, and prove to me what a great, great, great riding horse he is.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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