Apache is an Arabian that I have in training three days a week. He is a student's endurance horse who has spent the last 6 years or so trotting and cantering down the trails. He also does not appreciate a bit, with head tossing and fear if he thinks that a bit is going in his mouth. His owners requested I use the Ultimate Bitless Bridle for these training sessions much to my delight.
The first week of three rides stand out in my head. The first ride he demonstrated just how much good had been done by having a treeless saddle for the past endurance season and sans bit. Compared to the first time I had ridden him over a year before he was more confident going forward and had a softness in his body and a power in his step. Yay! He pulled often on the bridle on his way to bite weeds and change direction. I had forgotten how hard horses can pull down on the reins after only riding my own horses for the summer. After our session I noticed how much the nosebands had pressed on his nose, leaving indents that I rubbed and massaged afterwards.
The next session he was less forward and more questioning of my guidance. We spent much of our time completely still as I always allowed him to stop. After he stopped I would hold the halt in my body and add a backwards request. I did not allow him to pull down to eat, nor did I ever add pressure more than what was sufficient to feel his head. I wondered often how long it would take and even if it would work. I also knew that while I could generally force something like that in a bit (never with pleasant results), I could not in the Ultimate Bitless Bridle. So I waited. And I could feel when his energy shifted backwards. I spoke to him when this happened, "Yes! That is it!" I think if I had timed it, it would probably have taken about 3 minutes a standing this way and encouraging the backward energy. The first backwards step was one foot and uncoordinated. I spoke and spoke and rubbed his wither, celebrating each time. I noticed he would back and push his wither toward me when I rubbed it, obviously enjoying that as well. I could feel his back "rounding up to me" while we stood. Rather like when I horse is thinking about rearing. But this was enjoyment! I liked it and spoke more encouragingly. Throughout this session he found softer and softer responses to my guidance. Often, I let him stand until he could mentally coordinate what I was asking his body to do. This is exactly what I perceived to be happening. Yes, he wanted to go back to the gate, and he often turned in the same place, but if I waited until he was ready to turn the way I was asking, he would organize himself in a beautiful way; more round, more bent and more easily. I began to feel softness in response to my requests and I felt more confident about the approach I was using. He had mouthfulls of grass here and there so he could further understand the release of the bridle. After our session the indents on his face were much less pronounced and I think that directly reflected how he was softer.
Our third session was wonderful. I used the pads for the first time in this session and he spent a happy time standing on them. Feeling that horse release tension was remarkable. He licked and chewed, took deep breaths, and blew big breaths out. Apache had the breakthrough in understanding that he had complete control of releasing any pressure that he had built up into the bridle by moving his jaw. He realized that he could open his mouth any time he wished. His backing became even lighter and he was able to coordinate a couple of steps at a time. I began asking him to move sideways. I am not sure yet if this is what is needed. I decided to because I thought it would be a good place to start for his young rider to experience. Yet the coordination of his sideways steps was so lacking that I now feel I was forcing it. Still, he was light and willing with greater delight in what we were doing together. Again, the indents on his nose were markedly less, and he is happy to have the bridle put on and taken off.
Our fourth session was at the beginning of the following week and I spent more time asking him to move off the leg and more time backing. He still was reluctant to go forward and I decided to spend more time turning gently than yielding sideways. I can bump this horse with my leg, forward and sideways. I attempted to only do this as a boundary, but sometimes used it as an aid to make him go sideways. He was getting easier to move from left to right, but still quite stuck moving right to left in turns or leg yields. I think from reading Jean Luc Cornille's work that he can rotate his spine in the direction of his bend only part of the time and that he needs to move very slowly and precisely to do this. The indents on his nose were lighter still after this session.
During our fifth and sixth sessions I began to wonder if I needed to really slow down the sideways request, or not request it at all. He was not getting very much better at it. A little better at it, but compared to the backing it was taking a long time. In one particular yield, I asked him sideways and also to slow down his forward motion and go sideways. He stopped. I attempted to yield him away from an energetic leg, for which I mean that I laid it on his side and hoped to think him sideways. He took some backward steps and seemed unsure. I wondered if it would work better on the ground. How could I have made it more clear? Was he capable of doing it, or just confused? It seemed that in certain areas of the ring he could. Here it was not working. Eventually we moved sideways and I encouraged him happily. It didn't stick the way the backing had, and yet now I begin to realize that the difference is the speed. Moving sideways needs as much time for coordination as moving backwards. The same goes for turning. This is why I think this gets very slowly and minutely better. Yes I can make it happen faster, and he will be less comfortable and easy. Every time I allowed him to slow and coordinate, he would hold me more securely on his back. How interesting that I finally understood what someone may have originally meant by "sitting in". It felt as though I was sitting in his back, yet this happened from him, not from anything that I was doing besides waiting for him to coordinate himself. At the end of the sixth session there were barely any marks on his nose at all.
After reflecting on these sessions I am more ready to take it literally one step at a time, allowing Apache the space to coordinate his body slowly. I notice that I make mistakes in timing and gentleness when I think that something should be happening, or that if someone was watching they would think I was ridiculous. I prefer so much to ride this way and I feel more confident everyday that it is working, and working well. I also think that I do need to work from the ground to help with coordination. I am learning to use the Ultimate Bitless Bridle more ultimately each session and I am learning about the coordination of a horses body and the stimulation of their mind. I am constantly grateful for this. The responsibility is in our hands, literally, and I enjoy so much having a tool that can facilitate such a journey.
Until next week