Standing Still

I just got my lesson on Wednesday this week.

MJ looked all right when Debbie led him up to the wash stall. He was not completely settled down but he did not cause us any problems, even when I groomed his head while Debbie brushed elsewhere. Previously that had not been acceptable since there was just too much going on and he would end up dancing around some in the cross-ties.

So at the beginning all looked fine. Since I had gotten my second Moderna Covid-19 shot and my right hand was not working as well as usual I decided just to ride with the Fager Alexander sweet iron/copper winged three piece snaffle, which he liked before when I gave him a break from the double bridle. My right ankle was still bothering me so I did not put on my spurs.

MJ, as always, started out stiff even though he is outside 24/7 (except at horse shows.) I trotted early to get his blood moving. Since I had not been able to do any “homework” rides lately I decided to check out how he did in the sitting trot. He gave me a trot with a little encouragement, he was not going very fast at all so I just asked him to slow down a little bit, and then I went into a half-seat with as little weight in the saddle as I could.

He immediately started “swinging” his back. Previously it had taken a while before I could coax him into swinging his back, but this time he started at his first trotting stride. Progress!!!! I could still feel some jarring so next I will have to work at convincing MJ to relax his back muscles a little bit more. Debbie has had to limit his riders when using the sitting trot in lessons to people who already know how to sit the trot. Even light beginners banging on his back ends up with his back feeling sore, poor guy.

I usually do not like doing the sitting trot on school horses because they tighten up their back muscles to protect their spines from the wham, wham, wham that distinguishes a beginner's sitting trot. The wham, wham, wham irritates MY spine as well, plus my brain is probably slopping around repeatedly coming up against my skull, definitely not good for my Central Nervous System or my back muscles. The horse and I end up feeling miserable until I can convince the horse to relax his back.

Then I did a posting trot around the ring. While I did that one of the loose horses in the elderly paddock next to the ring started to come in and out of some high vegetation. I was able to finish the posting trot without any problems since then I was headed toward the gate, but when we went back to the walk and using the whole ring MJ started to get antsy and jittery.

Hey, spring has sprung. The birds are singing loudly and flitting around chaotically which did not help at all. The farmer had moved a small herd of steers into the adjoining paddock, plus there were some cows in the next paddock over which usually has no cows in it. Then some of Debbie's dogs decided to go investigate these cows with great excitement.

It all just got too much for MJ. His head went up (my reins were sagging), not into inversion but into the carriage of an excited schooled riding horse, head high, nostrils distended, eyes slightly bugged out, and when he started to shift his body from side to side Debbie called me to the part of the ring that was away from the cows and dogs.

I walked MJ some more. Every time we faced the cows his head went up, and it stayed up until we turned away from the cattle. Well, MJ is a Quarter Horse, many Quarter Horses have “cow” in them, and if a horse has “cow” in them that horse is going to pay attention to cows, that is just a fact of life. The dogs just added a little bit of excitement to the whole deal and MJ would not settle down and relax like he has always done before.

What was it? Spring air and pollen? Was it just that too many different interesting things were happening all at once? Was the sprouting spring grass acting like rocket fuel? Or was it all these things working together so that MJ did not feel safe enough to relax?

MJ was obeying me, but his attention was everywhere else. He started shifting around again and I decided that this would be an absolutely perfect time to school him at standing still on loose reins, a skill every school horse needs anyway.

So I guided him near Debbie (well away from the fence) and stopped him. A few times he started to move but he stopped when I told him no with the reins and we went back to standing with loose reins. I explained to Debbie what I was doing, how several old time horsemen would in their books recommend that the horse be made to “meditate” about life, their current condition, and the state of the Universe. Debbie was all for it, the last thing she needs is for MJ to start acting up under his other riders.

Then I did some “rider's push-ups” and stretching exercises, making good and sure that I did not accidentally give him a leg aid. He did put up with this but he was a little irritated that I was interrupting his “meditation.” Otherwise he would keep his head up, look at one place for a minute or two, then he would look at another place for a minute or two. These were not quick glances, he would stand there and study one place INTENTLY, then without relaxing at all he would move his head a little bit and study the next place intently. Eventually he covered the whole of the far side of the ring, from where the horse was standing in the high vegetation, to the steers back in the woods, the steers in the paddock, the cows in the other paddock, all the while keeping track of the dogs.

All this took around 5 minutes, then he sighed and his head went down to its normal position.

I praised him for being such a good boy about standing still and I got off since my half hour was up.

Sometimes when a horse gets anxious the rider needs to give the horse an opportunity to LOOK for as long as the horse wants to LOOK at something. When a lot of things are happening many horses need to learn to process everything, and they do not learn to process everything if the rider is continually giving the horse commands. If the rider gives the horse enough time to SEE everything the horse eventually learns how to process new things and to determine that the majority of new things do not mean DANGER. In effect the horse learns how to relax himself, but the rider must be patient since some horses can take a lot longer to do this than other horses.

And eventually the horses learn that new things are not automatically dangerous and out to attack, kill and eat the poor horse. This is a very good lesson for the horse to learn and well worth the time of just standing in one place. Eventually the horse learns that the rider's reassurances are valid and often they end up not being scared about everything. The horse has been there and done that, and now the horse is ready to go on with life and carrying his rider around.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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