The Oakley Diaries 52 - Back in the Saddle

After almost a year, my hip is good enough to swing over the cantle again. Likely, I'll have this soreness for the rest of my life, but at least physio has  got me back into the saddle.

For the better part of the year, I've been doing once, and sometimes twice, a week ground work. That is, as I've said before, something that most riders never learn, but I think it is far more important than most people ever grasp. Groundwork is not just running a horse around in circles, but there are many exercises to be done from the ground all of which contribute to having the calmest, quietest, best-behaved horse possible.

After this time of rest, when I finally climbed back on, the first thing I was delighted to notice was that my posture naturally went into the correct position. My spine was erect, my head in balance, my heels pointing down and back towards his rear hooves. It felt very good to be back and just walking around on Oakley.

I've been in this case before, recovering from some injury or other, (insert "not my first rodeo joke" here) so I've long since shed any of the ego-driven need to 'prove' I'm OK, or to get back to where I was a fast as I can. Thus, we just walked and trotted in the sand ring for the first 45 minute ride. Nothing strenuous. Just completely focused on keeping my posture and aids quiet. The most basic, fundamental, boring foundation work. Except for me, it isn't boring at all. I'm strange that way. To me, the foundation work is the most interesting goal. To focus intently on being as perfect as I can be in the saddle, my hands in exactly the right place, the play in the reins just so... light, but in contact, signaling, not controlling, my legs against my horse's side, just in contact, enough so the horse feels my support, but then able to increase pressure not visible to the casual observer and have him transition with the same smoothness as pressing the gas pedal in a car or smoothly drop back down. To do this at the walk, trot, canter, and gallop with the same ease and quiet confidence. Legs quiet and always in the correct position, not flapping about. To work with such precision, then ride exactly like that out in the fields, or over jumps.

The majority of people I've ever seen tend to skip on ahead as fast as they can to the big, showy stuff: jumping, cantering, wild exciting riding and show what they can do to the world.

I do not need to do that. My goal is to be as calm and steady and firm in the saddle and avoid the wild fun rides. I already know I can do the Man from Snowy River scene... I've done that ride more than once and not by accident on a panicking horse. The trick is to be able to ride like that with the same quiet confidence as at the walk in the sand ring. The mental challenge in doing the basic movement so perfectly that it becomes second nature. Then doing the spectacular, challenging stuff becomes easy.

So, we have been doing this most fundamental work. At first in the sand ring, then in the arena space, and now that the harvest is done using the 100 acres of field to ride. Oakley hates going into the woods alone, and I'm not going to spoil the fun with a pointless argument. My goal is to just enjoy the ride and if that means riding in the middle of a vast field because he doesn't like the treeline, well, fine. We can enjoy a good gallop out here, wind in the face, the fiery colours of Autumn all around. We can also enjoy a good walk, practice calm transitions, and put much distance underfoot.

Long rides and wet saddle-pads are the key to a quiet, respectful horse.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on October 29, 2022 at 9:26am

Let me add to your last sentence, after long rides and wet saddle-pads I add--with good responsive hands and logical riding.

You are covering your bases well.  Those huge expanses of open space are so useful in getting the horse to explore the joys of extension and those gallops really build up the horse's wind and stamina.  I remember those joys these days when I am stuck in the riding ring plodding around at the walk and trot.

One boring year I got my first horse to respond to the clenching of my calf muscles as a driving aid, both for walk and trot and just one for the aid for the canter.  I worked at making my rein aids lighter and lighter, and as I did both my horse became incredibly responsive, so responsive that some dressage riders looking to lease a "confidence" horse could not stop gushing about how responsive my horse was, my horse who never had any dressage training, ever.

Those big fields are so good for developing the forward impulse of both the horse and the rider, with forward impulse a trained horse can do just about anything so long as the rider does not interfere.

You are doing super, super well with your horse.  Good work!

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