Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lesson Day: Mac, Western Pleasure, and the Boys Enjoy a Winter Break

I should re-label these posts "weekly update" - it surely does feel as if there's not much new on the horse-front since winter decided to move in!

The boys are certainly pleased to see me every day, but I haven't been able to do much in the way of productive work this week.

Come on, open the gate...  You know you want to!
Sorry, boys - it'll have to be a bit warmer before we get back to work.


So tonight's lesson was all about western pleasure.  Hadn't done that yet.  Eric is taking quite seriously my statement that no matter what type of training the horse he puts me on has, I can learn something.  He's living up to his end of the bargain - hopefully, I'm doing the same!

And to all those western pleasure people out there, I owe you an apology!  For years I've watched you smile and step, step, step your way around the arena on slow-as-molasses moving horses and thought, "Huh... that doesn't look that hard."   Boy was I wrong.

Tonight I rode Mac.  Mac is a medium-sized bay Arab gelding with one slightly crooked front leg, a pretty face and a kind eye, and a higher-set neck than I would have expected on a pleasure horse.  Very cute, and very sweet.  And very well-trained.  His usual rider just moved to the 13 and over age division.  Mac'll be starting to leg up for show season next week, but recently he's been enjoying a well-deserved winter break.  Thankfully Mac didn't hold the interruption to his vacation against me.

It being a western lesson, and Mac being over five, the bridle Eric handed me had a broken-mouth curb bit attached. Not show-ring sanctioned, but okay for training purposes.  Mac also got splint boots in front rather than SMBs or polo wraps all the way around.

Once I had him saddled, with the stirrups adjusted and the cinch tightened, I swung on, and Eric gave me a quick rundown on proper hand/rein position and steering.  Ai-yi-yi!  Here I was, just barely managing to get my rights and lefts untangled with what I've done so far, and now he tells me western pleasure horses wearing curb bits steer in reverse.  Oh, and I wasn't to stick any fingers between the reins, either.

Apparently even though I'd get to use only one hand - my left - to "steer", western pleasure horses that have graduated out of the snaffle and hackamore are not neck reining. Although it may appear that they are given that the riders are using only one hand, Eric assured me that they're not - Mac reinforced this as the lesson progressed - in actuality, 99% of the steering actually happens off the rider's leg, not via the reins.  

So then, what's that about steering in reverse you ask?  It's like this: a horse ridden in a curb bit will flex his nose the right when the rider's hand moves left, and vice versa. And if you're scratching your head, you're not alone.  But once I thought about it, it got clearer.  

As I understand it (and any mistakes here are mine, not Eric's) horses ridden in a snaffle on contact, or in a bosal, work off of direct pressure - it's how they're conditioned to respond.  (Neck reining is also direct pressure - the pressure of the rein against the side of the horse's neck prompts them to give, or move away from the pressure.)  

A curb bit, unlike a snaffle, operates on leverage from the shanks of the bit.  So with a curb lifting your hand over to the left actually releases pressure on the left side of the horse's face - and increases it on the right, tipping the horse's nose in that direction.  And if I got my rights and lefts straight, that should even make sense.  At any rate, moving my hand toward the wall, in combination with inside leg, resulted in an inside bend and Mac stepping over toward the wall/outside of the circle, not into the center.

Ideally, Mac would move forward off my leg with a nice loose drape in the reins, and I would be able to change directions and increase or decrease my rate/change gaits from leg cues alone.  In practice, the picture wasn't quite that pretty.  In fact, the pair of us did several completely unintentional small circles in place before I figured out that I couldn't just move my hand right when I wanted him to go right.  And once I almost ran him headlong into the wall. Thankfully we were only walking.  

Just when I'd think I had it figured out, I'd realize that I was automatically trying to steer by neck reining, and Mac, bless his heart, paying attention, even though what I was telling him didn't make a lick of sense.  Sorry, Mac!  I managed to do a bit better as the lesson progressed, thank goodness.

Another thought I've frequently had while watching a western pleasure class is - please, no throwing things  - that riding a western pleasure horse doesn't look like a particularly pleasurable experience.  I didn't learn anything today that made me change my mind.  It's much harder than it looks, definitely - but something I would want to do on a daily basis?  No. 

Why not?  I thought about that a lot on the drive home.  For some reason, although the level of collection and roundness asked for is comparable in many ways to what I've been learning to ask for riding hunt seat, the rate at which the horses are asked to cover ground seems artificial and unpleasantly... well, unpleasant.  Everything from the four-beat - count them out, one. two. three. four. - walk, two-beat jog, and three-beat lope (which I had a hideous time getting slow enough, by the way) just didn't feel right.  

What it does feel is darned impractical - who, outside the show ring, wants a horse that takes five minutes to cover 50 feet at the walk.  Okay, that's an exaggeration, but still...

Maybe it's because I do so much trail riding in a stock saddle, but I want to go somewhere when I ride.  Reining didn't feel wrong, but the horses move out.  Saddleseat felt weird, yes, but as collected as the horses are asked to be, they go forward with energy.  And hunt is again, collected, but not... stifled.  I want my horse to be nice and round and balanced, but I also want to go, even if I'm only traveling in a circle. 
Still, it was a fun lesson, even if Sunny and I won't be venturing into western pleasure anytime soon.  Possibly because everything was so deliberate and rhythmically paced, I really had time to think about what I was doing.  As a result, my lope transitions were the very best they've been, even though Eric informs me that Mac's lope is the very worst of all the horses he's put me on (including Sunny).  Despite that, my lower legs stayed where they were supposed to, at least for the most part.  Best of all, I stayed soft in my lower back, and I didn't collapse my inside shoulder on the upward transitions, and I could feel the difference.

Now I just have to cross my fingers that the improvement sticks!


Mikey said...

I like Western Pleasure, but never got the hang of showing in it. I just can't bring myself to make my horse go like that. I mean, just like you said, would you want to ride that OUT? Phhsssshhh, no thanks.

But I do agree, it's hard!!

BrownEyed Cowgirl said...

Oddly enough, I got stuck training western pleasure horses back when I was young and trying to break out in the training world. I learned to appreciate the intricacies of the class and all that went into training a good horse, but I openly despised the acute's absolutely useless for anything outside of the show ring.

I think your analysis of the use of the curb bit was good. I really wished more people actually took the time to learn how to ride with one properly than to be so quick to jump on the 'snaffle bit forever' bandwagon.

You certainly are getting a well-rounded education from this trainer. Sounds like a lot of fun.

SunnySD said...

Hi, Mikey - It's certainly given me a different perspective - to train for and successfully get that level of roundness and collection at that speed requires an extremely high level of skill and control. Especially since at the rate the horses travel in the show ring, every mistake or deviation would be that much easier to spot! Even if it isn't something I want to aspire to, it was eye-opening!

BECG - The curb bit... I rode for years in a curb bit and had no clue. Just completely never thought about it. Huge duh! moment.

As far as the lessons go, I think just maybe Eric's enjoying the novelty; his other students seem more apt to be show-people, and they're pretty dedicated to a particular discipline (and to winning). I arrived with two basic goals: 1) ride better, and 2) help Sunny get less hollow/travel better. From Eric's perspective, I show up on time, pay on time, I think about what he has to say and practice, there's no pressure to WIN something, and if I don't bring a horse he can plop me on whatever horse needs some exercise and I'm happy to go with it. A stress-free student :)

For my part, I have no problem getting on whatever he decides I should ride - I know I'm going to learn something, even if I do occasionally feel it all over the next day. Eric's a huge believer in getting a horse truly round and balanced no matter what their training, and he explains things really well. Sunny's benefiting, I'm benefiting, and it really is a lot of fun! I highly recommend it.