When I arrived at Debbie’s barn her daughter, Sam, was hosing down a TALL chestnut mare’s left hock. Another mare had kicked her there during turnout, and it was swelling. When Debbie’s granddaughter led Bingo to me, I had her tie him up several stalls down from the wash stalls because the mare was not happy at all about being hosed. Then Sam had to get Debbie’s help because the mare refused, refused, and refused again to take her medicine. So I had to start on Bingo’s grooming, then my husband came up and took over so I would not get too tired. Then I could finally change to grooming his head, lower legs, mane and tail, which take up less of my limited energy.
By the time Debbie finished grooming Bingo, tacking him up and putting on his boots and headgear, I was pretty tired. My muscles refused to warm up so I was also a bit stiffer than usual. When I started my ride, I had to use leg, Leg, LEG to get Bingo to move out at all. After a short trot, Bingo loosened up a bit so I could let up on using my legs. Even so, and as stiff as Bingo started off, he gave me a decent turn on the hindquarters immediately, instead of three or four steps after my first request, as is his usual. When I got my aids properly coordinated, he also gave me a halfway decent turn on the forehand. He SEEMED just a tiny bit more cooperative than usual once he loosened up a bit.
Then I worked some on his super-slow walk. He gets somewhat confused when I gently and alternately twitch my fingers to tell him to shorten his stride, does she mean halt? Does she mean to slow down? What in Hades does this woman want me to do? I use my alternating legs as he slows down to halt, then he speeds up a little, then I LIGHTLY alternate twitches of my fingers to shorten his stride again, and we go back and forth until he settles into a walk that is slower than his normal walk. I want an even slower walk, but I will have to be patient until Bingo gets the message that I want him to do a super slow walk, not as slow as a turtle walks, but slower than Bingo’s normal slow walk. And why do I want this? Because this is the exercise that gives the horse’s “sling muscles” from the inside of his shoulder to his sternum an opportunity to carry weight and eventually get stronger. When these muscles get stronger Bingo will have an easier time elevating his forehand, and as high as his croup is any ability to raise his forehand will make Bingo a better riding horse.
Then I asked Bingo to extend his walk, some. After a while he tried to slip in a slow trot, it takes a horse less energy to go to the next fastest gait than it does to extend the slower gait. The horse has to increase the forward and back swing of each leg each time he extends his gait, and since Bingo was somewhat stiff, I had to encourage him to try just a little bit more each step. The three speeds exercise at any gait serves several purposes, it teaches the horse to lengthen or shorten their stride on command, the slower gait strengthens the forehand muscles, and the extended gaits help develop the horse’s physical mobility and endurance.
I am improving a little bit too! Even though my body was not operating very well during my lesson, Debbie told me that my lower leg was exceptionally steady on Wednesday! One of the reasons I bought the Millbrook stirrup leathers was the promise of greater leg stability, and I am glad that my body has finally adjusted to them enough that my lower legs remain in their proper place. My lower legs are much more comfortable too, and the front of my shinbones no longer hurt when I ride.
Nowadays, before I put on Bingo’s bridle, I put BOTH the Back On Track Poll Cap and the Fenwick mask with ears on his head. Bingo waits impatiently for me to finish grooming his head and mane so I can put on the BOT poll cap, which makes him happy enough so I can handle his ears without too many problems. When I put the Fenwick mask with ears on him he seems to relax even further. I get this “picture” from the horses of them slamming back to the end of the lead rope when tied, something I imagine happens to every horse sometime in its life. I know that my neck still gets stiff and sore because of a whiplash injury over thirty years ago, so I am quite willing to consider the fact that the horses might have tension right behind their polls resulting from slamming back when tied. Could it be that horses have perpetual minor head and neck aches resulting from this? Could it be that the poll cap and mask help reduce the pain from the perpetual minor head and neck aches? Horses have been bred for thousands of years to obey their people in spite of being in pain from injuries, ill-fitting bridles and saddles, and from bad riding. Do most horses resign themselves to the pain and perform the best they can in spite of the pain, descending into a sullen acquiescence that whenever they are ridden they are going to be in pain during the ride?
I cannot claim “miracle cures” from using these pieces of headgear on the horses, but I have noticed that the horses are less head and ear shy when they wear them. Mia, for one, absolutely adores both pieces of headgear, she relaxes when I put the BOT poll cap on, and she relaxes even more and starts licking when I put the Fenwick mask on. When I started riding Mia many years ago she was definitely ear shy and she did not really like me handling her head, and it took me a few years of gentle grooming (before I bought the BOT poll cap) before she learned to enjoy me handling her head and ears. When I started riding Bingo, he was a lot worse about his head and ears than Mia ever was at her worst, yet he is starting to let me handle his ears once he has his BOT poll cap on without trying to become a giraffe. I suspect that someone had used an “ear twitch” with Bingo since his left ear is much more sensitive to handling than his right ear. Could the Fenwick mask with ears be helping a long lasting “ear ache”? (The easiest way to do an “ear twitch” is to fold the horse’s ear tightly lengthwise; the horse tends to freeze in place.) Bingo is slightly more cooperative under saddle when I use both pieces of headgear; this is why I am now thinking he might be suffering for a low-level head, poll, and earache that reduce any joy he could feel from me riding him. As his pain lessens, he feels my aids better and he can change what his body is doing in more comfort. His attitude toward my aids has turned from one of sullen resignation to a slightly cheerful obedience and he is more prompt in his response to my aids. It isn’t just my riding and handling that is doing this, proper riding and handling can take years to change a horse’s attitude toward riding and with these two pieces of headgear I am making progress in weeks instead of years.
Have a great ride!