I took a lesson on Aspen in May with Jenny and had a great time, but only a few days after she left it seemed my canter on Aspen really began to fall apart. It got to the point that I dreaded trying to work on cantering because I felt an extreme sense of failure that we were regressing and, to be honest, some fear of falling off as well. She was getting grumpier when I'd ask her to canter then get bunched up and buck. I started to really hate the idea of cantering and in a short amount of time I wasn't having fun anymore. All forward progress came to a halt and with less than 2 months to go before my Fast Track! I began questioning my decision to attend the course in general, but especially with Aspen.
I shifted all focus from cantering to playing on-line in new places and in the pasture - trailer loading, backing through water, and playing around trees, and up and down hills. I spent more time bareback in the pasture or working on our carrot stick riding. Things were improving in all of these areas but still no luck with the cantering. One totally awesome thing that got 100% better during this time was our trailer loading! Aspen has always been willing to go into the trailer but staying in, facing forward, or being able to relax when the door was closed would not happen. We worked on it for about a week, everyday I'd send her in and let her eat her grain in the front of the trailer. Anytime she needed to unload I'd let her come out but she had to back out, then depending on her level of anxiety I'd walk her around briskly and then reload or if she weren't so anxious I'd send her right back in. I upped the ante by starting to close the door and if she started to turn around I'd point my stick at her nose and when she faced forward again I'd open the door all the way again. Pretty soon I could close the door for a few seconds, then minutes at a time. A few times with the door closed she'd turn around but then take a breath and turn back again to face the front and finish eating. On June 26th we went for our first trip together since her vet visit back in October. We drove up to Bozeman for a lesson with Jenny and Aspen was a super star. She loaded awesome, trailered great, and arrived calm and left brained - not so much a drop of sweat on her. How great is that?!!
I suppose that brings me up to my lesson last week. Aspen was really calm and very cooperative the whole time, even with a huge windstorm going on in a brand new environment. She only spooked once at the end of the arena on one side and got a little snarky with some horses over the fence on the other side a couple of times.
Aspen was unusually lazy and acting very LBI and wouldn't canter OL. I decided this was something I wanted to play with before riding because I knew we would work on cantering under saddle and I wanted to get what we could of it cleaned up before I got on. So Jenny introduced the "Game of Effort", the way it works is that I would send Aspen on a circle, ask her to canter then see what she offered. Whatever she offered was fine but then it became the goal for the next send for her to meet the offer and add a little more effort - another step, a quarter of a lap - whatever it was as long as it was more than the last offer. Once I asked her to canter I would do one of two things - if she did not canter I'd reward an increase in speed briefly then ask for a canter again, once she finally cantered on the first lap she'd get to give me whatever she wanted but then once we were trying to exceed that goal the next time I'd ask her to canter each time she broke gait until she could meet/exceed the initial offer. Once she did that I'd let her go on the circle as long as she wanted and let her come in when she was ready. A few really interesting things happened. It only took one or two times of this before Aspen 'got it'. She'd get to her goal and then instantly give me a great expression and want to come in. Who knew she could count?! Even when we got into a higher number of laps, she'd keep track, do exactly 3 laps (or whatever the goal # was) and then go "okay, there, I did it! Can I stop now?" It was so neat to see how well Aspen was keeping track of her laps and could get them right down to the last one - I mean, how often do we humans keep a good track of the laps on a circling game - and in which gait they occurred? This game also created a TON of draw!!!!!! She was totally 'straight on the circle' with a very positive look toward me the whole time. How cool?! Once I got her attention and cleaned up my send, my phases, and how particular I was about the effort she put in it really upped my leadership points and she was totally into me.
I got on and as usual we were trying to figure out why I can't seem to get my dang legs under me. I practiced standing in the stirrups at a halt, walk, and trot for a bit when Jenny thought to check and subsequently discovered that my stirrups were hanging off of the jumping setting so they were quite forward on the saddle... Who knew I had two settings for my stirrups? :o/ She also showed me an interesting Colleen Kelly of Rider Biomechanics technique to rotate my whole leg, not just my ankle, so my toes were pointing forward. Wow - what a difference that, in addition to moving my stirrups back, made in my ability to stand in my stirrups and be balanced in the saddle. I had to go home and play with this more over the last week to really feel like I made a change in my riding for the better.
I was trotting in a circle when Jenny asked me if I was ready to canter. I said that I would but I was feeling pretty apprehensive about it - both in my ability to be effective with Aspen and be who she needed in the saddle, and in my safety. She said to just go for it and show her what I had to work with, as I was coming to a corner and thinking about cantering Aspen got really tight, pinned her ears, and swished her tail - becoming very icky and having evil thoughts toward me no doubt. Jenny pointed it out right away and I was totally surprised how much I transmitted to Aspen without having any idea I had changed anything in my body. To my knowledge and awareness I didn't change my rein position, I didn't lean forward or back, or even tighten my legs. Now in reality - maybe I did any one of those things or all of them at once, or maybe I just did something so subtle as to feel anxiety, fear, and lack of leadership that Aspen picked up on and strongly reacted to having an emotional predator on her back all of a sudden.
I asked Aspen to canter and she was totally icky - basically just running away and threatening to buck while being loaded with evil, naughty, ninja-pony thoughts. Jenny recognized this as definitely LB snotty behavior and directed me to rapidly disengage Aspen. The idea being that she could either canter and it would be the easy / comfortable alternative to having to work hard and be uncomfortable by disengaging very fast. We got a couple safer, easier laps of canter and then Jenny offered to ride her at that point since we had discussed it earlier. I really wanted to see what was going on from the ground and to get Jenny's feedback on how Aspen felt and what she thought was going on in the saddle.
It was really wonderful to watch her ride - I got a great sense of what Aspen was doing with a rider and during the canter. I saw that a lot of her behavior that felt extreme to me under saddle was really not quite as awful as it felt. Jenny also showed me how Steady Rein is supposed to work - get in, get out, be effective, use, let go, repeat until you have a calm pony. I had definitely been holding too long, waiting for too big of a change, which was only further annoying Aspen and restricting her from the forward motion we were trying to get. I also think that after watching Jenny I had a lot of "Go!...A little bit" in my body - not a true forward energy flowing out of me. Jenny's body said "Go!" and my body was saying "Go...". After doing some serious horse development and education for Aspen in how to canter with manners I got back on and felt a big difference. I tried to channel my inner Jenny and make my body say and really mean "go!". I could feel the difference in using Steady Rein in shorter, but more frequent, intervals, and all of a sudden we could do laps of canter! The most canter we've ever done!!
Since our lesson Aspen and I have really turned a corner. I really feel differently about our relationship AND I've been having **fun** again!!! We've practiced cantering two times since the lesson and only had to disengage her once each direction on the first day. Both days when we were done I unsaddled her and I walked away and sat in the arena - Aspen came over and laid down and rolled next to me. It was a big moment for both of us and I really feel like this is my forever horse. I can see a successful future for us and a fun, challenging, educational time in Pagosa Springs at the Fast Track. All I can say is WOW - I can't believe how much can change in an afternoon. Jenny truly is a phenomenal teacher and if I can keep my personal anxiety out of the way I really can be the leader Aspen needs. I have some videos I'd like to post of the cantering once I'm done editing them down a bit :)
The last thing I wanted to talk about that was kind of big for me. Yesterday Aspen and I went for a walk down the road. I decided that we'd both done a lot of learning over the last week and a mosey down the road would be perfect. We did a little approach and retreat over a couple thresholds upon first leaving the property but she relaxed and offered to go forward pretty quickly. I had my hand buried in her mane with a casual rein, bareback and in a halter, and felt pretty good about the prospect of our walk. All of a sudden Aspen leaped to the side, head in the air, snorting and prancing. I bent her head around until she could stand still and realized that a horse had popped out from around a corner in a field to our left. She saw this too and wasn't afraid anymore but I could feel her heart pounding in her body. And I really mean pounding! I was pulsing on top of her as she was breathing heavy, heart beating, and instantly sweaty. I really was so shocked at how quickly she could have all of these physiological responses in a matter of seconds or less. Talk about a true prey animal flight/survival instinct kicking in - totally right brain, on point, ready to flee reaction. I am just so glad she didn't actually run off down the road! It took her only a minute before she was shaking her head and blowing out, but her heart pounded for quite some time. I really felt empathy for her and the very real fear she had just experienced. But I was so proud of her for sticking with me and bringing her emotions back down and being willing to continue on our walk. We had a great rest of the afternoon together and it was most relaxing. I just can't stop thinking about how quick she saw something I didn't see, reacted to it faster than the speed of light, then came down from that reaction as quick as she did. Nature in it's finest form anyone? :D
I forgot I wanted to just note for reference that Aspen's sacrum on the left was markedly higher than on the right, and her left shoulder drops - dumping my saddle substantially to that side. Letting a little air out of the right side of my pad helped but it will be interesting to follow her body changes.