I finally got the reins fixed on my Spirit bridle so I could use them without getting distracted. Since Debbie is off showing at the NC State Fair this week I did not get a lesson, I could not even go out on Wednesday to ride since everybody was leaving early, right when I ride. So Friday I cheerfully got out to the stable, my son was with me so he could do most of the work! I got to trim Mia's hooves and for once she was not too kicky with her hind legs. So we tacked up and went out to the ring and started riding.
I was full of ambition Friday, eager to see what I could do with the Spirit bridle. Mia was not full of ambition, she was sort of creaky, super-sensitive, and somewhat cranky. After our warm-up walk on loose reins I started experimenting with degrees of contact, starting off with the lightest connection possible. Since the cross-unders on the Spirit bridle are of rounded leather that goes back to around half-way down the rein I found that I could ride with slightly sagging reins and still have full communication, I was definitely riding without full contact but Mia obeyed every twitch of my little fingers. I had connection, full communication even on sagging reins. Of course since I was walking I kept my hands moving back and forth, just like I had contact. I then experimented with asking Mia to move to the side in response to flexing my butt muscles. After she showed me she understood my seat aid I went on to figuring out how much contact Mia would allow me. I was still in search of that good turn on the hindquarters and I had an idea that maybe if I had contact and alternated the light action of my hands we would do better. The first step was fine, the next step was not fine, and by the start of the third step Mia asked for rein and stretched her neck all the way out. At least she waited until I loosened my fingers! This sequence was repeated each time I tried the firmer (ounces) contact, riding straight, on a turn, and trying the turn on the hindquarters. Mia got more impatient with me every step. Finally she "told" me that her neck was not strong enough yet to do the contact that I wanted, she "told" me she was using new muscles in her neck, that these muscles were cramping after a minute and she NEEDED to stretch them out!
Of course Mia was right. I went back to more sagging reins and Mia immediately turned back into her usual cooperative self. I am going to HAVE TO WAIT until Mia's new set of neck muscles get stronger before I even think of light contact. This is exactly the same way Mia had reacted to contact with both bits and the other bitless bridles when I started riding her years ago, Mia first had to get her neck strong enough before she could do contact with the bit. It took around a year back then before I got reliable contact with Mia, contact that she kept willingly. So I apologized to Mia for going too fast, told her she was right and I was wrong, made sure that I did not put pressure on the reins, communicating with little twitches of my fingers, and Mia started rewarding me. She stretched out her neck, relaxed her back and started going into a swinging walk. Near the end of my ride I decided to try the turn on the hindquarters with my usual aids but this time, for the inside direct rein of opposition, just moving my fingers a millimeter or two on a very loose rein. Instant success! For the first time using the Spirit bridle Mia gave me the start of a good turn on the hindquarters, 4-beat walk, inside leg keeping time in the center of the turn, until she started falling out at the end of the third step at which point I sent her forward praising her highly!!! So I CAN use a single direct rein of opposition successfully with this bridle, I just have to be LIGHT, LIGHT, LIGHT with my hand aid, MUCH lighter than I would be with a bit.
So today I went out to ride Cider full of confidence. I should have known better, I forgot to set my alarm clock, had trouble getting my son up, and when we got to the stable, on time, Cider was giving Shannon difficulties as far as being caught and in one ill-timed escape move got ligtly whacked by a swinging gate. This sort of shocked her and she cooperated with Shannon after that. We got her tacked up and I started riding full of confidence about my new knowledge of lightness. Well Cider was not interested in lightness, Cider wanted contact, real contact. Cider gave me the type of contact I was trying and failing to get from Mia. Okay mare, so we walked around on contact for a while and then I tried a walk on loose reins again. Immediately Cider tried to dive toward Shannon, I'd straighten her out, then she would lug on the outside rein again. I tried various techniques, nothing worked for more that a stride or two, until I gave up and rode her on full contact again. The full contact on the Spirit bridle is different than full contact with a bit. Usually with full contact with the bit my fingers are pretty passive until I give a hand aid, with the Spirit it seems to work best if I am alternating little finger movements every stride with a somewhat stronger movement for the hand aid. Cider finally walked straight when I kept full contact and also alternated light leg aids, but the moment I relaxed it was back to diving in to Shannon. I did get the best turn on the hindquarters I've ever gotten on Cider, even when riding on contact the inside direct rein of opposition had to be LIGHT, LIGHT, LIGHT. Cider did not quite move around her inside hind leg, but the circle of her hindquarters was smaller than usual.
Then we practiced serpentines. As long as I had full contact Cider did what I wanted with only minor discussions when we passed by Shannon. I practiced staying in a halt on loose reins, we had several false starts until Cider finally consented to keep her feet still though she was looking back at me, then looking longingly at Shannon, looking out of the ring, but keeping her feet in place. Not a perfect halt on loose reins by any means, but she finally did keep her feet still for almost a minute. At the end of my ride I did a smaller circle around Shannon, and Cider did a decent circle with just one bulge outward at the end, probably my fault. Then for our last movement I insisted that Cider park herself parallel to Shannon instead of running into the center and burying her head in Shannon's arms. We had a little discussion before Cider consented to the parallel parking and halt on loose reins. Maybe Cider was in heat today, she was super opinionated!
Same Spirit bridle, same rider, two different mares, two completely different ways of using the Spirit bridle, with sagging reins on Mia and with contact on Cider. And neither mare cared about the fact that I had plans! Both demanded that I use the bridle to her satisfaction, not mine. Mia is nearly 30, and Cider is in her mid-teens. Mia is creakier, her neck is a lot weaker, but Mia, as a decently ridden Arab mare, is willing to cooperate as long as I listen to her and immediately improve my aids when she tells me I am doing it wrong. Cider's neck is fine, muscled and arched, and she is the only horse I've ridden that insists on contact with everyone. She is demanding in another way, usually she is not content to obey me without some hint of compulsion, but those hints of compulsion must be perfectly timed, given with the exact right degree of strength, and I am only allowed to relax my hand aids back to full contact. THEN she will obey me without resentfulness. Cider is half Welsh, maybe I am getting the difference between Arabs and the pony breeds here. Whichever, I am glad I get to ride two different horses. Whenever I get too complacent with one the other mare is sure to put me in my place. While this is not good for my ego, in the long run it will make me a MUCH better rider. And that is all that matters.
All my life I've dreamed of having "fingertip-control" when I ride horses. I would read the books of the masters and I would look at experienced riders in awe, wondering how they got their results, because no matter what I tried my wonderful horse did not cooperate (he was just waiting for me to do it right, then no problems, perfection.) Over the decades I got lighter and lighter with my contact and hand aids. Some days, really good days, I would get something near to what I had dreamed of. My horses started cooperating more with me, the lighter I got the lighter they got. Now, with the Spirit bridle Mia is starting to give me what I always wanted, prompt willing obedience from the lightest of hand aids, but only if I do my hand aids to HER specifications, light, with immediate release and perfectly timed. I treasure these moments. Sometimes my hand aids are so light that I don't see how she can feel them and when she gives me what I want it seems that she MUST be reading my mind. She isn't reading my mind (I've tried), she is teaching me how to ride on an advanced level, even though she is old, even though she feels creaky, even though her joints hurt, and even though she was a throw-away horse that nobody wanted (except for Debbie who refuses to give up on a horse!) All hail 30 year old arthritic imperfectly trained horses, even they can make their riders good riders. All their riders have to do is listen to the horse and obey the horse when the horse corrects them.
Have a great ride!