Before winter break I was able to get three rides on Errowood in. I wanted to share how they progressed and how helpful Karen Rohlf's video classroom had been.
Karen teaches by asking questions which I appreciate so much. It empowers the rider to really engage in feel and cultivates independence. Truly, once you have a coherent question the answer is so much easier to identify! Some of her questions for working gaits are: can my horse stretch right now? Can my horse stay forever in self carriage in the gait their in? Can my horse transition up and down from this place?
These questions were so simple and inspiring to me I couldn't wait to try them with Errowood. The piece that was missing the most with him was the stretch. (On a side note I have begun the think about stretching in a more psychological way then a mechanical way. More on that later). Errowood can get very sticky. He will suck back and hold himself crookedly when he anticipates me asking him to move forward. I have noticed that often in dressage, trainers will say hugely general things like; everything is more fixable with more forward, or if you go more forward everything else will come together. I spent years sending Errowood more forward. Psychologically he lost confidence in me every time I did it. When I added more energy to his crookedness hoping it would straighten him out, he practiced moving in tension and crookedness. As soon as I changed my approach to asking these questions I noticed that every time I began to think about an upward transition he lost his stretch ability. Wow! We spent that entire session revisiting stretch ability every time he lost it.
Let's get a little technical here. Earlier I mentioned I have begun to think of stretch-ability psychologically. This means I do not force a horse to stretch. I.E. No draw reins, no running martingales, no chambons, no side reins. You are probably asking how that would be possible with the Ultimate Bitless bridle anyhow and you are right, it isn't and when people ask if they can I don't recommend it. I remember how amazing it was to realize that a relaxed horse naturally stretches!! I hope everyone can really sink into that realization at some point in their riding journey. If stretch-ability is related to relaxation, then I believe when I made that my priority, Errowood began to trust that his mental release of tension was more important to me than any thing else. He got more and more confident and we ended with some beautiful, light, offered trot transitions.
I want to practice going into more detail here. When Errowood got sticky I used the understanding that I wrote about in The Learning Curve to help him straighten and relax. When I thought about upward transitions he would often want to veer to the inside of the ring. In the past I have corrected every horse with the inside leg, and outside rein, asking them to yield back to the rail. Since Errowood was not laterally bent to the inside this really isn't the biomechanical solution. When he swerved to the inside he bulged his rib cage to the outside, so I made a boundary with my outside hand and bumped gently and rhythmically with my outside leg. I was asking him to "be with me" on that side. It wasn't physical imbalance that caused him to fall in, it was mental and when I reconnected him to my outside leg he reconnected with me. He bent to the outside, released the outside rein (technically the inside rein if we are talking about bend) and straightened out. Now that I have become accustomed to feeling the bend through the rib cage and thoracic vertebrae I can help a horse balance and straighten which has a bi-product of mental release and stretch. This is something I do with every horse until I am really feeling them with me on both sides. It is interesting to work with some upper level dressage horses and find that they are only really with the inside of the direction of travel mentally. When I asked them to be with me on the outside they became spooky and surprised that the outside of the ring existed. This was fascinating to me and really highlighted how a double bridle can allow a rider to mechanically put a horse in position but they haven't actually learned a position as a way of going.
Lastly, stretching can be taught physically, without a prior release of mental tension and this can result in a horse disconnecting as they fall on the forehand. Jean Luc Cornille writes many articles about the effects of mechanical long and low. He would really like every rider to be aware that forcing a head down produces a horse that is loading the forehand and in danger of doing lasting damage. He highlights allowing a horse's neck long, but not low. Even more interestingly when a horse he is riding plunges downward in the neck he responds by down transitioning and slowing the cadence so the back muscles have time and space to coordinate and carry the rider correctly. Definitely food for thought. Karen Rohlf also points out that when she has a horse plunge into a stretch it isn't self carriage at all.
In my next session with Errowood this became very apparent in the trot. He would drop into a stretch with his nose almost on the ground and start to slow down. Instead of adding more energy I gently picked his head up for a moment, again saying, be with me, no need to disconnect down there. If you have this experience and rebalance you horse, feel for how the front end immediately feels lighter and then more willing to go forward. It is ok if they rebalance into a downward gate as well. If it is a new idea to you, check out Uta Graf's training rides. She demonstrates stretching the neck without lowering it over and over throughout her rides. I hold that picture in my head while I stretch my horses, especially Errowood. Honestly, if you add the question: is my horse plunging down and on the forehand? You will connect enough to know if what you are doing is helping a release or adding too much weight to the front legs. This second session with Errowood developed the trot and I began to ask the question about whether or not I could sustain the gate forever. I love this question because instead of wondering if the horse is in front of my leg, I notice that sometimes just an ounce more energy will put us into the sustaining feeling. So powerful to ask the right question!! He gained a huge amount of confidence in upward transitions and offered to canter. He was crooked while offering so it was fun to work then on his mental/physical stretch and connection with me in the trot instead of promoting/allowing a tense crooked transition. The sensitivity of this horse astounds me. Part of the reason he lost confidence in me is because he would very literally do everything I asked and sometimes in my ignorance I asked that he do things that weren't healthy biomechanically. I think it was uncomfortable and sometimes painful. I am thankful this inspired me to learn more and find an understanding that helped rather than hindered him. Having a fixed mindset slowed me down a bit in letting go of the damage I had caused and moving on.
Our last session culminated in me being able to have the conversation about his energy matching mine. One time I used the whip too strongly and he jumped forward. I really apologized. He is a pretty forgiving horse if he feels my sincerity. Thank goodness we have a foundation of mostly positive relationship! I spent time talking to him, finding the mental/physical stretch and rubbing him with the whip. After that I also made sure that I transitioned down and often as I thought about transitioning up. We worked in the walk on pirouette positioning without any tension. He was so with me on both sides in the trot work after that I had that truly magical feeling of my hands still, together and low on his whither; his neck and thoracic vertebrae growing up in front of me; true bend in haunches in with moments of half pass; shoulder in happening whenever I asked and the sensation of floaty passage steps. No longer did he feel crooked or falling in to the left. We were superstars together that day and I was blown away by has ease and power. My mom often marvels with me how our horses are just waiting for us to get it right and when we do they meet us there. Karen Rohlf says, "never underestimate the potential for things to improve in ways you cannot yet imagine".