I’m about a week late on this review, but I couldn’t miss sharing this one. What a fun clinic!! I took Cava, and my student, Kristine, brought her mare Peaches, and we each took a private lesson with Elizabeth Poulin. The clinic was a fundraiser for The Light Center Foundation (http://www.tlcinunion.org/), a barn that has horses and other animals for use in therapy programs for at-risk kids. It was Cava’s first field trip, and she handled the whole day like an old pro. Peaches has gone on just a few trips, and they haven’t always been successful, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but Peaches was on her best behavior as well. Both mares hopped right on the trailer (much thanks to Lisa with The Light Center for trailering us!), settled right into their stalls for the day, and quietly munched hay while they waited for our lessons.
Peaches went first. Kristine and Peaches have only been at the dressage thing for about 6 months, and have come a long way in a short time. Their walk and trot work is getting pretty solid, so they spent time working on keeping Peaches completely steady on the bit, and then moved into canter transitions. The two worked hard, and got a few suggestions for improving their transitions and keeping Peaches softer and rounder in the canter.
Then it was my turn with Cava. I was pretty pleased with how most of our work was coming along, so I wanted Elizabeth to check we were on the right track and let me know if anything looked wrong or needed changes. I also wanted to talk to her about a problem I was having keeping consistent contact. It seemed when anything went wrong in anything we were doing, it was always a loss of contact that caused it. I thought Cava was getting her tongue over the bit, and maybe pinching herself, which was causing her to stop and throw her head up. I wasn’t sure what to do, because I didn’t want to push her and make the problem worse, potentially creating a rearing habit.
Elizabeth listened to my concerns, and agreed that I had a tough problem if the tongue was going over the bit. She, however, suggested that I was making it worse by stopping and attempting to adjust the bit, which was in effect rewarding the behavior. We talked about different kinds of bits I might try, but she emphasized that really it didn’t sound like a bit problem at all. She did look at the french link I was using, and verified it fit well in Cava’s mouth and was properly adjusted. She watched us trot around and Cava was relaxed and working quietly, seemingly totally comfortable with the bit, my riding, and the new arena we were working in. We did some figure 8’s, and a lengthening, and I was starting to think she was going to make a liar of me when Elizabeth asked for a shoulder-in. First Cava ignored my aids, then when I insisted more firmly, she threw on the brakes and threw her head in the air.
Immediately, Elizabeth was saying, “Forward, ride her forward! Make her work! Gallop around!” and we were off, making quick laps around the arena. When I felt Cava reach into the reins again, we came back to trot and back to shoulder-in. The theory was, whatever Cava was doing was an evasion, and I needed to make it more work to evade than to do whatever I had asked her to do in the first place. And it worked like a charm. By the end of the day, I had a reformed pony.
Later that evening, Elizabeth actually called me back to let me know she had talked to her father, Tom Poulin (a well known judge in the area) about Cava and me. She wanted to confirm she had given us the right advice, and Tom suggested the same thing Elizabeth had, only he further reiterated that what we had was not a bit problem or a mouth problem, it was a submission and… are you ready for this? Forwardness problem! He said my contact problems were because she was behind my leg! He said the behavior was totally fixable, but I needed to gallop her forward when she did it. I needed to get her, and then keep her, in front of my leg, and any time she sucked back, send her forward again.
It made so much sense! I had never actually caught her with her tongue over the bit, but I was so worried for her comfort and afraid to make it worse, that I had babied her and actually made it worse! The more I thought about it, the more what he said made perfect sense.
The next day I was so excited to get to the barn and give it a try. Sure enough, she tried her trick, and I sent her forward. It worked. We had a lovely ride. Then again the next day. Then I got quicker with my response. As soon as I felt her start to drop the contact, or take one rein more strongly than the other, or start to bulge a shoulder or wiggle in her body… I was on top of it! Instead of closing one leg here, or squeezing one rein there, which only made the haunches fall in or the other shoulder bulge, I firmly closed both legs and sent her forwards! And, contact was re-established. It was a perfect example and reminder of riding a horse back to front, keeping a horse in front of the leg, reaching for the bit, and most importantly… forward!