No Spurs, No Sweat

During this week my right ankle was bothering me, to the point of random pains in muscles and tendons and my leg “threatening” to collapse under me. This may be a long term effect of the Covid-19 case I had early 2020, and it is very irritating to me. When I was getting ready to ride on Wednesday I decided that it would be better for my ankle if I did not put my spurs on, those metal branches of the spurs feel quite unforgiving to my ankle bones.

The past few weeks I had been wondering if using just my medial soleus muscle, which starts right above my inside ankle bone, could substitute for spurs. I also wanted to know if the horse was reacting to the feeling of the inner branch of my spur or if he was really reacting to my medial soleus muscle. I had noticed the horses perking up some when I used this muscle so I did not think I would be missing much action at the walk. Anyway I carried my crop, so my heels may have been “naked” but I had backup for my leg aids.

MJ was stiff. He had been used in some lessons and his back was stiff. Getting into half-seat I alternated my lower legs, using the small area just above my ankle bone to touch his sides. At first his response was minimal so we walked around a little bit to get his muscles warmed up. After that I started using my crop a few times, making sure to hit my lower leg so the crop just made a noise and nothing more. After slapping my half-chap with my crop a few times MJ started to extend his stride some. He did not give me the “generous” acceleration (at the walk) that I get from touching his side with alternating spurs, but he did respond. All through this MJ reached out for contact with the double bridle when I wanted him to, so I accepted what he gave me.

The thing I noticed the most about my leg while giving the aid with the medial soleus muscle is that my knee moved completely off of the knee roll, along with the lower part of my thigh and the upper half of my calf, not very good for my security in the saddle! Since I was just walking I did not worry too much about this. But later on when I was thinking about my ride I remembered when I got on a spate of trying to use the lightest leg aids possible on my first horse some thirty years ago, instead of a kick or pulsing my calf pressure against his side I just flexed my stretched calf muscles, strongly and suddenly with immediate release, at all gaits. This leg aid did not destroy my frictional grip or my security at the saddle as I was doing this for all transitions between and within all the gaits, walk, trot and canter. Since I was flexing my calf muscles I must have been activating my medial soleus muscle without realizing it because I had no idea that this muscle existed. I will have to try this on MJ during a future ride, I know it took my first horse a few rides before he realized that this was a valid leg aid, but thereafter all I had to do was flex my calf muscles to get prompt and generous obedience to my leg aids.

Toward the end of my ride my right ankle was feeling weaker so I dialed back on asking MJ to extend his stride. We did curves, and when his back felt looser I started doing turns on the forehand. At first MJ gave me his usual so-so sort of sloppy turn on the forehand. I find it easier with MJ to ask for the turn on the forehand from a walk so we would go back to meandering around the jumps and I would ask for another turn in place. The last time I finally felt it after two steps, he “planted” his active front feet and rotated his hindquarters around them. He flexed strongly to the inside so the turn was not perfect, but both Debbie and I were pleased with him. In the wet sand we could see the smaller circle from his front hooves and the larger circle made by his hind hooves.

Good boy MJ! Debbie had me walk him around a little bit so he would straighten his body, and then I got off.

So this time, using my spur-less leg to give a leg aid with the medial soleus muscle, MJ responded well enough so I did not mind not having spurs on like I usually do when I do not wear spurs. I did not “need” pony club kicks to get a response to my leg, I did not have to use my crop beyond the first few minutes, my crop never ended up hitting his side, and he obeyed me with good will if not as fast as when I wear spurs. I will be experimenting with this further because sometime the branches of my spurs really irritate the bone of my feet (I use the Spursuaders which I am afraid are made to fit a male foot) causing some “interruptions” with the flow of my leg aids. I am VERY glad to have an alternative now to getting the lesson horses to respond promptly to my “naked” heels. With more work MJ's responses should improve.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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