I pulled into the barn ready to for some much needed time with Athena. I love pulling into the barn and looking out to her pasture. She usually perks up, hearing me pull in. But, today she was happily grazing in her pasture. The sun’s rays were still warm, casting an afternoon glow across the barn. I planned on riding in the upper arena, to practice what I’ve been working on in my lessons.But the weather was so calm, so perfect that I decided to venture into the outdoor arena.
The outdoor arena has been spookyville. It seems that every time we’ve been out there lately there has been a scary noise or birds have flown up from the edge, startling Athena every time. To say it’s “rocked her confidence” would be an understatement. Every time we go out there she can hardly focus on me, being so worried out the scary monsters that lurk in the trees and bushes surrounding the arena. We’ve been doing long line and lunge sessions out there and it’s been getting better. So today, with the sun shinning, the air still and the farm workers quiet, I decided to brave a ride in the outdoor arena.
Our upper arena lessons have been fantastic. Athena has been focused, calm, and ready to learn. She has really been trying for me in our lessons which has been super exciting. We’ve even been doing a lot of canter work and as of Monday, no bucking in the transition. Whohoo!
The outdoor arena is almost the exact opposite. Our corner’s were non existent as she braced against my inside leg, her head bent to the outside in a complete counter to the circle as she stared out at the boogie monsters she was convinced were hidden in the grass. Her trot was hollow, short and tense. It was nothing like my indoor arena rides.
I had two options; be frustrated that I wasn’t getting the same focus and relaxation in the outdoor arena as I have been during our indoor rides, or revamp my expectations for the ride today and simply go back to the basics. Every time I ride I try to always do whats best for my horse and clearly what she was telling me today was “I’m uncomfortable, I’m nervous, and I need you to be my support.” So that’s just what I did. I focused on corners first. When she would counter bend I would circle her around and around until she gave me even the slightest bit more bend and then we would move on. I focused on the skills she was already comfortable with and already understood how to do. No reason to add new things to the ride. This was a confidence building ride, not a training something new ride today. I didn’t push her forward, if she felt that she needed to go a little slower I let her, as long as she was still going forward to some degree. Adding pressure to an already tense situation just creates more tension. If she wanted to look, I let her for the first few rounds around the arena, again as long as she was still going forward. At first I felt like a yo-yo, fast and then slow and then fast again. It was discouraging to feel like we had completely reverted to what our rides had been months ago. But, I kept consistent and even with my hands and my seat, not pushing, and not holding. By being consistent my hope was that Athena would start to normalize to me, my breath and my rhythm.
About half way through our ride she started to relax. Our corners started to round out, the contact in my hand began to even out and her trot started to become round and rhythmic again. We had success!
As riders we need to let go of our desire to micro manage our horses. It’s hard to do… I know! But, it’s so important to teach them how to respond when they are nervous and to teach them the the tools to unwind and relax with out constant restrictive control from us. That was what today’s lesson was all about. I didn’t chase Athena with long rein, short rein, circle circle circle. I rode the spooks forward, as if they didn’t exists. I would give subtle reminders with a wiggle of my fingers to drop her head when needed, but didn’t fight with her. It was like a caring hand on the shoulder saying “ we’ve got this. I’m here, you are ok.” Athena responded with lowering her head creating a posture for relaxation and calmness. As we went through our ride she began to seek this position more, and worry less about what was around the arena. It was an exciting lightbulb moment.
As I walked around the arena, cooling her out, I reflected on our ride. It wasn’t the ride I had planned, and we certainly didn’t “progress” in our flat work training, but we did make progress. It was a confidence building ride. We started tense and spooky and ended calm and relaxed. That’s improvement. Our ride wasn’t perfect, but today we laid the foundation for further growth. Athena learned how to work through her anxieties and look to me. We struck a balance between allowing Athena to work through her own anxieties, and learning how to look to me for support. I practiced keeping my own emotions in check and staying steady and consistent with my hands, seat and legs and giving Athena something consistent to come back to and seek out in her moments of tension and spookiness. It was a very rewarding ride in a very different, but still successful ride.
When you go out on your next ride remember to have an open mind and align your expecations with what your horse is telling you for that day. Every day is different, and every ride is different, especially when working with young horses. Sometimes taking a step back to fill in the “gap” in your horses training is more beneficial than plowing forward with your flat work training per the schedule you’ve set in your head. At the end of the day it’s all training, and all the pieces really do fit together to build a well rounded and happy horse who wants to advance through the levels.
Enjoy the journey, enjoy the ride and have fun!