After all the confusion with the new foal, Mia had gotten sore, I think she aggravated her arthritis some. It took a while to get Mia moving these past few weeks, and my legs have been getting sore a little from all the leg aids I had to use just to keep Mia moving faster than a slow crawl.
Last week when I finally got a good forward striding walk with Mia I got a big surprise when I asked her to halt, she actually leaned on my hand, keeping her head low and her mouth closed. When I first started riding this mare some 20 months ago she was soooo weak, and if I asked her for good contact her head would go up and her lower neck would bulge out. Debbie, my teacher, had told me that part of Mia's problems as a lesson horse was Mia's habit of bringing her head up, and gaping her mouth open when asked to move on contact, which is why they had to use a standing martingle and the noseband on her. I do not use a standing martingle, and I do not use any nosebands. I have spent all these many months working on getting Mia stronger, especially her hind legs and her back, and on getting her neck extended and her head down. The poor mare was just too weak physically to keep good contact, which is why she had so many evasions.
Gradually Mia's connection with the reins improved, working first for a few steps, and gradually working up to sides of the ring at both the walk and trot, with plenty of loose reins in between so Mia could stretch her neck. My contact with her mouth became very soft, Mia learned to keep her tongue and lower jaw relaxed, and I mostly used the reins to encourange Mia to reach forward. When I gave a rein aid I did it in time with her footsteps and relaxed it immediately. Due to her arthritis, Mia had really shortened her stride, and all this time I have been encouraging Mia to extend the movement of her legs to the front and rear, increasing her effective range of motion. All these months I allowed Mia to dictate how strong the contact should be, and she consented to carrying the bit on her tongue. I dreamt of the day when she would finally say YES to my hand's full contact with her mouth.
Mia finally signaled me that she was ready for the next step by leaning on my hand.
So during my lesson on Wednesday I decided to try full contact. Urging a little stronger with my legs when walking, I asked her to come forward to a firmer contact with the bit. It worked immediately, she reached out confidently and finally allowed me to to take up contact with the bars of her mouth. Debbie liked the results. Occasionally Mia would raise her head, but when I spread my hands apart to ask her to lower her head and reach out with her nose Mia moved her head back down. After a good warm up we decided to try it at the trot. Since Mia still was moving stiffly I started with a Forward Seat sitting trot, sitting with my crotch right behind to pommel of the saddle, urging with my legs and keeping my hands still. After several short trots Mia was moving much more freely, and I moved into a posting trot.
Mia took a much stronger posting trot than ever before. She moved the bars of her mouth right up to contact with the bit, I actually had a few ounces of good contact! Mia's hind legs started to work harder and they stopped trailing out behind. I felt impulsion as she rewarded me with a good, strong trot. I still had the same problem with her head coming up occasionally, but she always responded to my hands and brought her head back down to where I wanted it.
Debbie was VERY hapy with the results. She had never seen this mare move on full contact before, and she liked how Mia's movement got connected. I was thrilled, because even with the stronger contact Mia's mouth felt supple and alive. She wasn't quite as responsive to my rein aids, but after a few times (with me releasing immediately upon hints of obedience) she started lightening up. Sometimes horses, when doing something new, have to be reminded about what they already know in other circumstances, and going on full contact was enough of a change for Mia to "forget" her earlier fingertip lightness. I am sure we will continue to improve with her responses.
This is a huge milestone in bringing Mia back as a riding horse. With full contact I can move from just getting her stronger to improving the quality of her gaits. Since she is strong enough to take full contact, she is ready for slightly more demanding work. All this takes a lot more time that it would if she were not in her mid-20's. Mia's neck still gets tired pretty quickly and I haven't been able to build her endurance up since my endurance is so non-existent because of my MS. Still, Mia is stronger, and she has just proven it!
I must confess that I do not understand horse people who consider the action of the hands as a minor point of riding, preferring to give most aids with seat, posture, weight, and legs. With effective contact with a responsive mouth, with the poll the highest part of the horse, the rider can modulate the horse's movement quickly and with great precision. (I am not talking about collection here.) Don't get me wrong, I use these other aids too, I just do not expect them to be a substitute for good hands. With good contact I feel hooked up with the horse's brain, and the horse and I can have a good conversation about how to modulate the movement. With the bit the horse can communicate with me, telling me immediately if my aids are too strong, or not strong enough, or even if I am giving the right aids! This feedback is invaluable for me since I am such a klutz physically.
By the way, when I say full contact, the horse is NOT hanging on my hands. I am NOT supporting the weight of the horse's head. The poll of the horse is the highest part of his body. The nose is sticking out in front of vertical, only occasionally coming to vertical in response to a restraining hand, which is immediately released. This full contact which includes the bars of the mouth feels less jiggly than the contact with just the tongue. In fact, several times on Wednesday, I felt like I was keeping contact with my first horse, Hat Tricks. It was that good.
Have a great ride.