Friday, December 23, 2011

Lesson Day: Alisha, Take Two

Debated and debated over whether to take Sunny, but ultimately climbed into the Blazer rather than hook the trailer up.  Arrived at Eric's with the sun still shining and no breeze - a balmy 32'.  He asked if I wanted to ride outside.  Glad I threw a heavier jacket in the car!

Alisha again - and this time I got to go collect her myself while Eric finished putting away his previous mount.  She's outside with eight or ten other horses (and a couple of Eyore's cousins) in a big lot.  Okay, first test:  could I find the right horse?  Catching one certainly wouldn't be a problem, as they all collect for their share of rubs and pats as soon as they see you coming - but haltering the right one might be a trick.  I wended my way through, looking for a smallish, chestnut mare with one front stocking, and a blaze face perched on a long, upright neck... amid a corral full of chestnuts, bays and grays.  Well, at least I could rule out the bays, grays, and the donkeys!

I haltered the horse that matched my best recollection of Alisha's build and markings, making sure to check underneath for the proper equipment - bringing in a gelding sure wouldn't get me any points for swiftness!  I was fighting with the gate latch when Eric appeared to check on my progress. Happily for me, I had the right horse.

Saddled, bridled and booted all around, we headed out into the big arena for "show day" practice.  Three small orange cones on the long side divided the arena into thirds - the middle was the center point, and a cone on each end about 10 feet off the short side denoted where I was to pretend the arena stopped.

After a brief warm-up we went straight into an easy left-lead lope, concentrating on cadence.  My goal was to keep her steady and solidly on a big circle encompassing about half the arena - the center being that middle orange cone.  All changes of rate were to happen at the exact center on a straight mid-line. 

After I'd successfully circled the arena several times, being coached on relaxing deep into my seat and not dropping my shoulders, and oh, by the way, she doesn't like the greenhouse at that end, so be sure to work to keep her round... Eric had me collect her up and ask her for fast, large circles.  As we sped around the arena, concentrating on maintaining cadence and circularity (no egg-shapes, please!) he explained the small slow circle that we'd transition to next.

The small slow circle begins on the same imaginary mid-line as the large, fast circle, but it's smaller (duh!).  The goal is to show the largest difference possible between the rate of the large fast and small slow - but cadence, roundness and smoothness trump all. 

When I asked for slow, I unintentionally shifted my weight - and got a huge bounce right - note to self: Alisha changes leads on the fly really(!) fast - as she misinterpreted my seat adjustment as a signal to switch directions.  Oops. Misplaced cues aside, we managed a series of size and rate changes fairly well, although I suspect there was lots of room for improvement.  Still, for a first effort I don't think it was too bad.

Following circles to the left we paused to allow Alisha (and me) to air up again, then repeated the exercise to the right at the other end of the arena.  This time, a clearer ideas of what was expected things went more smoothly, so we didn't work in that direction quite as long. 

Another pause for breathing during which Eric demonstrated flying lead changes.  The smaller indoor doesn't have enough space for practicing those, so although my circles could probably have used more work on roundness and definitely on rate, the daylight was starting to trickle away, taking with it any lingering warmth - we moved on to make the most of the unusual-for-this-time-of-year gift of outdoor space. 

Hopefully this makes sense - it does in my head, but once it's passed through my fingers, all bets are off!  Eric's intent in training is that a horse will maintain it's rate and direction on the circle with the lightest possible guidance from the rider.  Because the horses quickly learn the patterns and to respond to shifts of weight and leg position lightly and promptly (witness Alisha's quick bounce anticipating a lead change when I shifted my hips), it's important to cue them clearly and consistently when a change is actually coming. Well, all the time, actually, but you get the idea. 

So. On a normal circle left with no change planned, my legs should be steady, maintaining light to non-existent support, only bumping if Alisha's rate changes or she moves off the circle.  On a left circle preparing for a change, rounding the curve just prior to the center, I should add right (outside) leg behind the cinch, reinforcing a haunches-in.  At the center I should change to a cue for the right lead.  I should be looking up and to the center of the new circle.  My weight should shift from my right to left hip, and my right leg should move forward to hold her barrel, with my left leg sliding back behind the cinch to move her left hip over, while my right hand lifts to tip her nose in, cuing a bend into the curve of the new circle. 

She should change smoothly, not bolting forward into the new direction - which she had a tendency to do.  But that's mostly a sign that I haven't quite gotten the hang of how much emphasis (not much) I need to cue her.  I'm still shouting, or at least asking loudly; I need to learn to whisper.

A couple of changes in both directions provided plenty of food for thought.  As the daylight was fading more quickly, we finished up with another run at spinning properly.  Lo and behold!  My slow, thoughtful body-part-by-body-part practice on Sunny paid off.  I wouldn't say the spins were fantastic, but they were much better.  And I was able to focus more successfully on Aisha, enough to tell when she was correctly stepping over to the right in front, or incorrectly stepping under.  I'm not sure how big my grin was, but I know I was wearing one! 

We called it a ride with that - a very successful lesson on multiple counts.  I made it through without being uncomfortably nervous at the speed we were traveling much of the time, AND I managed to successfully and intentionally cue for flying changes.  As a bonus, the spins have improved. 

I may feel guilty for cheating on Sunny, but it is nice to have the opportunity to learn without splitting my attention between what I'm doing and what he should  be doing but isn't.  And I was doubly grateful I hadn't brought him when, after walking Alisha mostly cool and brushing her to the point of barely damp, Eric decided that she should spend the night in the barn were it was warmer, rather then going back out into the increasingly chilly night temps.

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