After a good practice session on Wednesday (nearly 50'!) during which Sunny cooperated, and I worked on mounting and dismounting with Thunder, I was pleased to see the weather forecast for Thursday showed a reduced chance for rain, with temps remaining unseasonably warm. Yowza! I'd get to take Sunny!
Morning sunshine had retreated into gloomy clouds by the time I loaded the horses, and a chilly wind was beginning to kick up - the promised 50s weren't going to materialize after all. But it wasn't too cold, I had the trailer hooked up, horses inside, and I was already dressed for hunt seat....
By the time I got to Eric's it was spitting rain. With the local schools all out for the holidays, the barn was busier than it's been since October, and he was running about half an hour behind on lessons. Since I routinely arrive early, I took my time brushing both boys and cleaning their feet, then left them to loaf by the trailer while I watched the lesson before mine.
C was on Pride, working on lead changes. She's going to be doing reining this summer as well, and she also barrel races, so tuning up her muscle memory for proper flying cues should be beneficial all the way around. It was really helpful to watch Eric coach her through getting Pride's hips properly engaged and shifted under him, first at the walk, then at the trot, and finally loping. Being able to see her work through what I need to work on, too, was a lovely perk for arriving early.
I missed the last few minutes of spins, wanting to have Sunny ready to go when Eric finished with C. The sky was still spitting a bit, but the breeze had died down, and I shed my heavy coat before I headed arena-wards. Sunny was fresh, and persisted in walking off with me as I mounted. I finally just swung on anyway. Stinker! We'll be working on that little habit more at home.
A few minutes of walk/trot transitions, most of them intentional - good grief, where did my lazy horse go! and we started. Right into a working trot, since he seemed to have energy to spare. Eric watched him go round a few times, calling reminders to me for seat and elbows, then, "I don't want to you to panic, but... you do know he's off in front, right?" Crud.
Well... I suspected he was going a little short. He's felt slightly rougher than normal the last few times I've ridden. Not to the extent of head bobbing or definite lameness, but the ground I've been practicing on is pasture - not exactly smooth, flat, or worked, so I wasn't positive. But this is the second time he's been off in front during a lesson.
Sunny's conformation is not exactly perfect. He's crooked in front, particularly on the right, which is the side he's favoring. He could have some residual stiffness or soreness from slipping or playing, or he might have a stone bruise, although given the nice, soft arena footing, that would be less likely to show. Or it could be something else entirely - Eric seems to be leaning toward the cause being more conformation and musculature-related.
In any case, I have two options - vet him and turn him out and baby him, which will either fix things, or not, or continue to ride him and work on strengthening the muscles on his right side so that he's able to carry himself better. Since he's not noticeably lame, ever, in the pasture, or even walking under saddle, and nothing seems warm, sore, swollen or otherwise off anywhere, I'm going to go with door number two for now and just keep an eye on things.
So, with the intent of improving those right-side and back muscles in mind, we finished out the rest of the lesson with an emphasis on encouraging him to carry himself better - in essence, teaching him engage his back, stretch out in front and step under in the rear. Which in practice meant asking for an inside bend first at the walk, then trotting - once he would lighten and soften into it and stay committed for a few strides, then giving him an opportunity to stretch. If he popped right back up and hollowed out, he wasn't actually collected and using his back properly. At which point I was to go right back to asking him to bend and step under. If he stretched down instead of popping up, then he got to relax and go forward for a half-circuit or so.
We also worked some on canter transitions, but only to the left.
On that front at least, my practice paid off - not only did Sunny stay cantering without breaking to a trot much more consistently, but he's also lifting his shoulders more. Transitions up are still not exactly pretty, but they're coming more readily - and part of the problem is me as much as it is him. I have a horrible time remembering not to lean forward and collapse my shoulders when I ask. Downward transitions are getting much, much better, at least when I remember to use my whole body rather than forgetting I have legs.
I suspect he would have been much less soggy post-lesson than after our indoor sessions, but unfortunately it started to pour midway through. We were both soaked topside by the time quits was called, but his back under the saddle and his belly were dry, so I don't think he was too terribly warm. I rubbed him down as best I could despite the rain, then blanketed him for the ride home so that he wouldn't get chilled cooling down.
Homework: lots of inside bend, soften, commit, release, to help him build his back muscles, collect, stretch and lighten. And more of whatever I've been doing that's improved his canter. Fingers crossed the warm spell lasts, and the exercises help!