Rainy-day Non-riding Lesson

When my phone rang on this dim, rainy morning, I knew it was my teenage student calling to confirm that her lesson was, indeed, canceled due to weather. She’s a busy high-school student in an academically challenging school, so I figured she’d be glad of the extra time to complete weekend homework.

Instead, she asked could we please meet at our usual time and do some alternative activity. Her suggestion: an anatomy lesson of some kind.

Grace and her student on a nice, sunny day.

She was too busy to ride the last two Saturdays, is going away for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and she said she was missing the horse we work with, a quirky Paint mare who belongs to one of her distant family members. The mare only works on our lesson days, living a life of privileged leisure the rest of the week.

Grace is not the easiest horse foe a novice rider to learn on. She requires quite a bit of motivation to take part. We joke that her favorite word is “whoa.” Though she’s sound and safe, she’s often cranky, always looking for a way to get a ruder to let out of work. She has driven other riders and trainers to despairingly give up on her. But I like Grace and get along with her and my young student “gets” her, laughing at some of the bitchy behavior and correcting what needs correcting, all the while appreciating the four-legged “princess” for who she is.

So, of course, I bundled up and dodged intrepid (crazy!?) El Tour riders so my student could spend time with the horse she who has been her challenging teacher for a couple of years. We did acupressure for the immune system, which required identifying and locating various bony landmarks to locate specific points. (Our reference was Tallgrass’ classic “Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual.”)

It was a good hands-on anatomy practice for us and Grace got so relaxed her knees actually buckled at one point. All in all, a good way to spend part of a wet winter morning. (Better than riding a bike 100+ miles in cold rain!)

Rain, Rain Go Away …

… or Longeing Without Getting Dragged Through the Mud

I know now why I spent so many hours helping my horses learn to balance and move correctly and happily on a longe line. After enduring what the National Weather Service recorded as the fourth driest year (since 1895!) in 2009, we have now had the eighth wettest January and eleventh wettest February on record. That has meant mud, mud and more mud and a lot of days with marginal footing. The main roundpen at the barn where my guys live turns into a bit of a lake and has been unusable for days on end.

Meanwhile, both of my horses – both the old and potentially stiff and the youngish and mischievous – still needed to get out and engage brains and bodies.

Once a horse has learned to carry himself well on a line, I generally prefer to free longe. That’s because, no matter how light and connected and careful I am, having me on the end of the line changes things for the horse. The balance and movement are slightly different, less likely to be straight and correct. My presence can cause a horse to lean a bit on the forehand or go ever so slightly crooked. At liberty, he has to make all his own choices about posture and carriage without having me hanging on the other end of a line for an excuse.

Both of them have done an admirable job of holding the circle at all the gaits that were safe on the day, done their transitions up and down in balance and pretty much on request and both have remembered how to relax and stretch on the line just like they do at liberty. And they have been very easily controlled, except for one anomalous spook by the old man.

Wherever you are, I hope your winter has been friendlier (or you have a nice, snug indoor arena to work in). But if you’re having to do the longe-line thing and your horse hasn’t quite mastered the art of going around quietly in balance and self-carriage, it might be time to do some remedial work to correct his postural choices. Here’s why I think it’s important to longe horses with intention and how I go about helping them work better in all kinds of situations.