Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lesson Day: Dancer, Hunt Seat

I'm full of pizza and there's a warm purring cat on my lap, and another one curled up on the back of the couch by my shoulder.  I'm trying very hard not to fall asleep, so if this gets incoherent, blame it on the cats!

Another day in the high 40's.  Checked the boys around noon, and contemplated the mess I'd need to make to get the trailer hitched up.... Nope, sorry Sunny, no pony ride for you today.  Maybe if it's still warm and the ground is drier next week.

Arrived at Eric's just in time to help wrangle some goats - they'd been inside to get their physicals (health check, shots & what-not) and were not thrilled at the prospect of being stuck back in the horse trailer for a quick jaunt back to their usual location.  Once that was done and only one - temporary - escapee, too! Eric asked  what I felt like working on.  Since show season is coming (gulp) it was time to choose a discipline to focus on.

Since I'm not made of cash, picking one for which I'm already semi-prepared seemed wise, which left out saddleseat.  And actually, western pleasure, too - I have the basics, but those show outfits are pricey with a capital $$$.  Not to mention, none of the three horses at my disposal are geared for the extreme collection and control of western pleasure.  Not that they're built for saddleseat, either!

Long story short, I went for hunt seat - it's what Sunny and I have been working on, I have the tack, and most of the show stuff - at least for the level I'm going to be at.  And if Sunny's not quite built to be a hunt horse either, at least we can have some fun.

So... Eric pulled Dancer out for me.  Dancer's a TALL bay pinto.  Heavy on the Arab look, but with a high-set neck and upright shoulder and an impressive set of hindquarters.  He had the energy and action to be a Country English horse, but not the throatlatch - too thick - so he ended up being a hunt horse.  He's (like a lot of Eric's stand-bys) rocking an impressive resume, but it's been a few years since he top-ten'd at Scottsdale.   And none of Eric's students did hunt last year, so it's been a while since he's been ridden, too.  "He has all the buttons, but they may be a bit sticky," was how Eric put it.

I practiced my be-calm breathing as I brushed him.  He swayed and sidled back and forth in the cross-ties, watching everything with big eyes.  Well, the goats still inside were a bit loud...  But he picked his feet up politely and dropped his head like a gentleman for the bit, so maybe I wasn't going to die.

Tacked and ready to go, we headed for the outdoor arena.  "He doesn't stand very well when you get on, so just sit deep and turn him in a small circle if he starts to walk off."   Sure, but first I have to get my foot all that way up there!  Sheesh, am I glad I ride a short horse.  And sadly, Dancer's "doesn't stand very well" label could be far more fairly applied to Sunny.  I think Dancer took about two steps all three times I mounted. (Stirrups, girth tightening.... still can't quite get the hang of adjustments from on top.)

I learned two things about Dancer immediately - he's incredibly light-sided, and he'll get hollow at the twitch of a finger.  Which meant I had to be very consistent, very vigilant, and very steady, especially with my legs.   Getting him to relax and stretch into contact at a walk was challenging.  He wanted to get hollow and jig, and if I lost focus at all, he fell apart.  Anticipating the trot and canter would be the same, I wasn't eager to try the faster gaits, but they arrived anyway.

And oddly enough, the walk turned out to be his worst gait.  Trot was much easier to rate although he'd still pop up and get hollow, and he was still quick to speed up if I used too much leg, but at least it wasn't jiggy and rushed.  Canter turned out to be much the same story - in fact, it was easier to keep him round and balanced, even to the right which was his stiffer direction.

I asked about it, because usually going faster doesn't make small issues like rushing disappear - usually it makes them worse.  Apparently, Dancer'd been over-schooled on transitions under a previous rider.  Because the rider's walk/canter transitions weren't the best, he'd practiced and practiced and practiced them, until Dancer was almost leaping into the canter at the slightest hint that he needed to speed up.  It may have improved the rider's transitions, but it didn't do good things for Dancer's walk.  No kidding.  

After we'd worked through the gaits in both directions, Eric had me let him stretch for a few laps, then ask him to step into the trot on a loose rein, then gradually collect him and ask for a canter.  Two-point, maintaining frame, hand-gallop, then sit and back to a more collected canter, and finally to a very collected canter.  Wow.  Like riding a bubble.  Downward transition to walk, loosen reins, stretch, and walk until cool.

It was a challenging lesson for me, partially for my hang-ups.  Initially I had to think very determinedly calm thoughts and not let Dancer's unease in the cross-ties make me nervous, too.   Jigging isn't one of my favorite things, either, especially when I know faster is coming. 

Eric's getting pickier, too - it isn't enough that I do it correctly most of the time, I need to do it correctly, period. And make it look pretty, and easy - LOL!  And he asks me to feel what needs to be fixed.  Seriously, though - I like that he gives me a chance to feel and make adjustments on my own before he tells me what I need to do.  And being pushed a bit means I do it, rather than wimping out like I'd do on my own.

Hopefully I'll get a chance to practice with Sunny tomorrow - the pasture looked better today when I was out.  And if nothing else, even walking there's always something to be worked on.

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