Wednesday I got to ride Bingo, a nineteen-year-old buckskin gelding, who is possibly a Paso Fino/QH cross, around 14 hands high, for my lesson with Debbie.  Bingo had been owned by another MS sufferer who could no longer afford to support a horse.  He had been trail ridden some and ridden in a field.  Recently Debbie has been using him for lessons for two little girls.  Right now he is not very fond of being ridden in the ring.  Since Debbie had doubts about how he would react to a riding crop she did not let me use one; this is not really a problem for me since I wear spurs and it meant I had one less thing in my hands to keep track of during my ride. 

It was a nippy morning, in the 30s F with a light breeze, but the sun was shining so it was quite pleasant.  When Debbie brought Bingo in he seemed anxious, and Debbie said he had his spring shots the day before so I cannot blame him for being anxious!  As Debbie started grooming him I talked to him, both voice and with my hands, and he was not happy when I touched his head.  I decided to introduce him to the gentle warmth of my Back on Track gear; I was interested to see if my Back on Track poll cap would help with his head shyness.  I got it out of my bag, let him sniff it, and started to bring it by his ears.  Up went his head, but at the third try I finally was able to hold it against the left side of his head just below the ear for a minute or so.  It must have felt good because when Debbie took over she did not have much problem getting it on him (of course it helped that he is a short horse!)  After she got it on a minute passed, then he started holding his head a little further down and he seemed to relax a little bit. 

Debbie wanted to lunge Bingo a few minutes before I rode him, so we did not put the bridle on right away.  She wanted to be sure that he was not too hyper, she wanted him to get used to my saddle and the Back on Track exercise sheet, and she wanted me to see his gaits.  Bingo knows how to lunge, and he seems to be learning the voice commands.  Walking was fine, trotting took a little encouragement, and it took a little while to get him to canter.  After around five minutes of lunging Debbie put on the bridle without too many problems, in fact at one point he was standing patiently without anything on his head or around his neck.  Bingo normally goes in a jointed rubber D-bit snaffle, but Debbie let me try my Wellep bit on him.  On a lesson horse I like being able to use a different bit and bridle than the one the horse usually wears, that way the horse can learn that when I ride him I want a certain level of sensitivity, but when he wears his lesson bridle he does not have to perform at such a high level.  The reason Debbie put him in the rubber bit was that with the metal bits he would dive his head down which was hard on his beginner riders.  Debbie did not mind at all when I wanted to use my Wellep bit, she thinks that it would be a good idea to get Bingo to accept a metal bit for riding.

My ride started with Bingo following Debbie around in the ring, and then she angled off and I kept Bingo going straight.  He was stiff turning, and when I wanted to halt it took me a few tries to stop him.  After the first halt we stood for a moment, and then I gave him a leg aid to walk.  Bingo did not respond AT ALL, he just stood there while I repeated my leg aids.  Debbie then came up to him, and started walking as if she was leading him, I gave my leg aid again, and Bingo started walking.  Most of my ride was walking in gentle curves around the jumps, halting, and asking Bingo to walk again.  It would take me four or five hand aids before he halted, and four or five leg aids before Bingo would move off, usually after offering to back up instead on going forward, even off contact.  When I told Debbie I could feel no indication that Bingo had ever been trained beyond being green-broke, she reminded me that Mia had been pretty much at the same level of training when I started riding her.   

All through the ride Bingo would start by carrying his head normally, and then he would gently reach down for the ground with his nose.  As I rode him I kept contact some, then I used a sagging rein some, either way at some point his head would go down.  I kept contact when his head went down by letting the reins slide through my fingers, and I relaxed my contact when he brought his head up.  Then I would take a gentle contact for a few steps, relax my hands and let the reins sag somewhat, and in a few more steps I would establish a light contact again.  His mouth, on contact, felt nice and soft even when his head was going down, but he resisted my aids for the halt and for turning.  He was quite resistant throughout his body when turning and he did not show any signs of being educated to the turning signals from my legs or seat.

After about ten minutes Bingo realized that if he did what I wanted him to, he would get a lot of PRAISE and sometimes a very enjoyable scratch on his neck.  He became more responsive to my legs and the reins though he never relaxed into a curve.  Halfway through the lesson, he started relaxing his back somewhat and his responses became smoother.  Debbie had me trot him once, and he has a nice springy trot but we did not really get together enough so I could post the trot, so I alternated between two-point and sitting.  The reason we could not get together enough for a posting trot is that I could not feel the drive from his hind leg up into my seat, and while I appreciated the absence of jarring he just was not giving me a true trot.  I also tried both a turn on the forehand and a turn on the haunches to the left, and he seemed to understand those aids somewhat. 

Since Bingo’s croup is a bit high, I will have to bring him along slowly.  He does not seem too sure of how to use his back under saddle, which is why I mainly want to walk him the first month or so.  I saw and felt enough of his movement to see why Debbie thinks he is part Paso Fino, and until I get him stronger he will be likely to give a trot that looks like a square trot but rides differently than a good trot with impulse.  When he cantered on the lunge line he moved like my Paso Fino mare would move at her canter on the lunge line, one lateral, the other lateral, then a period of suspension instead of the normal three beat canter.  To me these are a sign of muscle weakness, and as he develops his muscles he should start giving me purer gaits.

IF Debbie agrees, my plan is to walk, starting off with his normal walk and gradually asking him to extend his stride by using alternating legs as his belly swings away from my leg.  At first I will do this on a straight path, and then I will start asking for extension on gentle curves.  My goals are to convince Bingo that he can bring his hind legs forward enough so that they can support some of his weight.  Since he is croup high, I will have to do this gradually or he will want to evade my driving leg because his back is too weak to transmit the drive of his hind leg through his body properly.  If he were willing to cooperate with my driving leg and I got overly ambitious, the muscles of his loins would probably start hurting, encouraging further evasions.

When Bingo’s back and hind legs become strong enough so that I can feel his hind legs’ thrusts in my seat, I want to start working on the third speed of the walk, the super slow or “counted” walk.  The reason that I want to wait until Bingo develops a more extended walk before starting to work on the super slow walk is that I noticed that Bingo would rather suck back and avoid moving in response to my leg aids.  His initial reaction to my leg aids is to move back and/or to the side, pivoting either on his forehand or hindquarters, and it requires me two or three more leg aids to get him moving forward.  At this stage of his training I do NOT have contact when I am asking for a halt-walk transition, and every time I use a driving leg aid I move my hands forward even on loose reins, so he is not reacting to rein pressure when he starts backing up.  I HAVE to install FORWARD before I can expect any improvements in his gaits.  During my lesson I did not back him up because he was so ready to back up when I wanted him to go forward!          

AFTER I reliably get forward movement in response to my leg aids I will start exploring the super slow walk.  I will have to be cautious with this since his preferred speed is a halt, and if I introduce him to the joys of a 1-2 MPH walk before FORWARD is confirmed I could cause Bingo to become balkier than he is right now.  The reason I want to do the super slow walk is that it is the best gait to strengthen the sling muscles from the inner scapula to the bottom of the chest, the muscles that raise the forehand.  As these sling muscles get stronger Bingo’s withers will not sag as much from my weight when I ride him, lessening the ill effects of his too high croup.

It is very frustrating to me that when I have a new horse to ride and train that my present anti-MS medicine, Gilenya, has cut my endurance so much.  Wednesday, after just walking for twenty minutes, I was so tired that I could not be very effective at the trot.  When I got to twenty-five minutes at a walk I was pretty much useless as far as training goes because I was just TOO TIRED.  It is very difficult to inspire the horse to get moving when all my body wants to do is get off the horse and dissolve into a puddle of inert protoplasm!  I am really sick and tired of neurologists that insist that I need to take drugs that make the symptoms of my MS WORSE and interfere with my riding.  My increased exhaustion is also sucking out the joy I used to feel on horseback, and there are mornings now when I dread getting into the saddle because I know it will make me so, so tired before the horse is properly warmed up for decent training.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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