Last week was very cold, but Thur night I went out to the barn and rode anyways. Sarah had decided to set up some cones to weave and raised poles to step over to help keep the attention and motivation up on what promised to be an otherwise slow ride on a cold night. Liz and I thought it sounded fun, and any ride sure beats another day of not getting our horse-time in, so we bundled up and set out to do it. I think it was around 10 degrees when we climbed onto our horses, dressed in multiple layers, and began walking around the arena, noticing that the footing was dry enough that it wasn’t frozen like we’d expected.
So the footing seemed ok to trot a little, and let the horses stretch… after all, they’d been cooped up in their stalls for 3 cold days! That soon turned into just a little canter. Then I was warm and my horse was warm, and we were having a blast just tootling around! Midway through the ride, I joined Liz for some bareback fun, something I love but haven’t done much of lately, and was thrilled to feel Liam’s new improved canter sans-saddle, and feel how all my work on the exercise ball has really improved my seat!
Friday was a bit warmer, but not much, and my motivation was lacking, so I got on Liam bareback again, and tootled around a little. Saturday warmed up and was quite pleasant (by comparison anyways!) so I got out to the barn early to get a REAL ride in on Liam before teaching some make up lessons. At this point, Liam has had almost two weeks off, aside from 2 real rides that I squeezed in between the blizzard and the cold, and the 2 bareback rides. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was hoping to get some work done because we have another lesson with Elizabeth Poulin just a week away! So I got on and stretched him a little, then tried to do some lateral work to get us connected and supple. I got a few mediocre leg-yields, and the shoulder-in was almost non-existent! He felt so STIFF! After a few minutes of failure, I stopped and made a new plan. Clearly we were feeling what happens after 2 weeks of non-work, so in fairness to Liam, I backed off and went back to some easier circles and serpentines, just trying to loosen him up. They were better, not the best we’ve ever done, but alright. I still didn’t feel like I had a great connection, and I seemed to be trying his patience picking away at it. Finally, I gave in, gave him a longer rein and let him stretch, hoping just to get his back looser and swinging. Boy, did it ever swing!
He must have had lots of energy saved up from those 2 weeks off, because he gave me a power trot like nothing else. I half-halted and gathered up a little rein, slowly picking him up to a low working frame. His back stayed up, and with each half-halt, he engaged a little more, and I felt discover a whole new gear.
To truly understand the incredible joy this brought me, I need to take you back a little bit. I love this horse more than anything, and nothing would make me happier than to bring him up the levels and get my bronze, even silver, and gold medals on him. But I am realistic, and I know he has more than a few strikes against him. A funny ankle from the racetrack is the big strike one, but my fantastic vet Dr. Nicky Wessel has done an AMAZING job helping us overcome that one. Strike two is probably his age (we’re only 2 months away from his 16th birthday!) and the fact that he raced until age 8, so he was very well-trained for the opposite of dressage. But as he shows me time and again, you really CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Strike three is probably his conformation/movement. He’s not built real downhill, probably closer to level, but definitely not uphill, and he is not naturally an uphill mover either. He was a good racehorse, and his powerful front end tells me why. His neck is also set on a bit lower than would be desirable in a dressage horse. Movement-wise, his walk is nice quality, his trot is alright, flatter than desired in a dressage horse and not real big, but not horrible. His natural canter is lateral, but with work, we have created a nice canter anyways. His most difficult movement quality besides rather average natural gaits, is his seeming lack of in-born ability to adjust his gaits… to collect and extend.
But I love him, and dressage is about training, right? So we set out on this journey to see what we can do to work with what we’ve got. And he’s taught me a heck of a lot in the process… and has changed what I look for in a dressage prospect! (In fairness, he was not purchased to be a dressage horse. His ankle brought both of us to dressage). So the canter we have improved. And we found a collected trot in there. And the hint of a collected canter. The lengthened trot and lengthened canter have been so elusive though, that I had some serious doubts if they were even in there anywhere. I have actually gone through tests, trying to figure out if we could still get our 60% assuming bad scores on both trot lengthenings and both canter lengthenings. He just didn’t carry himself in a way that allowed him to lengthen, only to slip into racehorse mode, fall on the forehand, and pull himself along (at great speeds!) with his front end. Not pretty.
So with all that in mind, we’ve been working our tails off, figuring we’ll just do the best we can with what we’ve got. Every horse has a weakness, right? I think I’d rather have a weak movement on a horse that will proudly carry me into any arena and give me 150% every time, than the opposite.
Well, something finally clicked for Liam. I think it was a combination of the strength he has built up from more collected work and all the lateral work, mixing with the energy he’d built up from not working the previous two weeks. As he motored around and I began to half-halt and pick him up, he stayed connected over his back and engaged more. In each corner, I pushed his inside hind further under his body and half-halted again, and he gave me even more. The trot was building, and in a very good way. When we fell apart, I put him in a gentle leg yield or shoulder-in position, and all of a sudden, he reconnected and I think had a light bulb moment. He wanted to go forward, and he found his body in a new balance, and he EXPLODED into the biggest trot ever! He floated over the ground, eating up the length of the arena in HUGE strides. It was the most powerful feeling ever, and I found myself working hard to stay with this new movement. In each corner we would rebalance and reconnect, and he would coil himself and then explode onto the long side, but for the first time ever, he didn’t explode like a racehorse from the starting gait… he pushed with his hind end, and his withers rose up, and he was round, and powerful… and extending! Woooohooooo!!!
Here you can see where it starts… That hind leg is clearly working, and his withers are visibly elevated! (And I’m taken by surprise, and trying to figure out what is going on under me and how to ride it! lol)
I picked him up some more, half-halted in the corner, and again he coiled himself up and sprung forward down the long side. This time I was more ready for it, and tried to help him hold it together.
He couldn’t hold the uphill balance more than 2 or 3 strides, but he sure tried. Compare this pic to the above pictures. Same huge stride, but the balance is totally different. When it started to fall apart, I would gently bring him back and gather him up for another try.
The more times we did it, the bigger his stride got. It’s not perfect yet, but if this is what it looks like the first time he realized he could make his stride bigger, I can’t wait to see it after a few months of work!
Needless to say, yesterday I gave him an easy ride, and I’m still on cloud 9 from that amazing feeling. I am once again reminded why I love dressage. It makes every horse more beautiful, more balanced, and more athletic. It improves every one of them, and every horse can do it. I’m also once again reminded why I love my ottb’s. Regardless of how many factors they have working against them, they have hearts and minds that make up for it. Their desire to work, their desire for partnership, and their desire to please make them give just a little more when another horse would quit. We can’t forget that the mind and heart are an essential part of an athlete.