May and I were able to sneak in 2 lessons before the holiday. While one was a jumping lesson and the other was a Dressage lesson, they both had one focus: Transitions.
When we jump, May really likes to just take over and I have to be pretty loud to be heard, which results in a lot of head tossing and drama. It has also come back to bite us in the behind as the jumps get a bit bigger. May has a habit of landing on her forehand and wanting to pull me out of the saddle, while also getting pretty stiff through her body throughout the course.
As a result, we really wanted to focus on getting her to stay soft over the topline and pushing from back to front around the course. Issue #1: my bit. Fun fact, it’s pretty difficult (at least for me) to get a horse soft and round into a thin bit with a gag action. Sure, I can pull the head down, but it doesn’t really encourage May to stretch to the bit to create the connection. Sooo I threw my dressage bit on, an eggbutt ultra comfy bomber bit.
The jumps for our lesson stayed small, as the focus really did stay on the transitions and keeping May soft and listening. We ended up going around the course like “5 strides of canter, 5 strides of trot, 5 strides of canter, five strides of trot” ad nauseum. At first, this was wildy hard. Like May was just yanking me out of the saddle and falling on her forehand.
But we continued. Just being consistent and asking her to soften and listen. We added circles in, where necessary, to break up the tension. I think it is easy to assume that horses that aren’t fast also aren’t tense, but with May, I am beginning to think just the opposite.
By the 4th or 5th course, I felt May really lift up through her shoulders. She let me put my leg on and opened up her step when asked without falling on her forehand. I could easily see a distance, and she both jumped and landed in far better balance than she had before. To finish up the lesson, we did a full course at the canter, and I was able to maintain the same soft feeling and uphill balance (with the help of a circle or two). Either way, I am calling it a victory!
To the surprise of absolutely no one, when I showed up for the dressage lesson a couple of days later, I wanted to focus on transitions. More specifically, I really wanted to concentrate on our transitions in and out of the canter: staying connected on the up and maintaining the uphill balance on the down.
To accomplish this, we used the world’s most simple exercise, but one I go back to literally whenever I have connection issues. 20M figure 8. I find this exercise really helps a horse soften laterally due to the soft change in bend. Of course, we added in transitions over the intersection. To the left, the transitions were pretty good and came along fairly quickly to a place where we were both happy with them. We being me and my trainer… because Heaven Knows that they were not being done the way May would prefer to do them.
To the right though, we were having much worse issues. This isn’t wildly surprising. May has always preferred to throw her right shoulder in vs. maintaining the bend in this direction. Vet visits, chiro, and PEMF have never indicated any kind of pain reason for this. It seems to be a bit of a habit that I haven’t been consistent enough in breaking. Kind of like being right handed.
So trainer and I had a little powwow about how to fix it. This is one thing I really appreciate. When I work with a trainer where we can work on something, I can do “This isn’t working, what can I do?” and we troubleshoot. We discussed ground work options (like a pessoa or long lining). We discussed tools we could use.
But the issue I was having is that May was tilting her head when I asked for the transition, breaking the connection and allowing her to get straight and on her forehand through the transition. So kind of a dynamic movement, and one she was getting a reward for every transition. Every transition she was getting a release of pressure that allowed her to fall down on her forehand.
So our super innovative solution? Grab the top of my saddle pad, over the withers, with my outside hand in the transition. How do we know it worked? I asked for the down transition, May hit my stable outside hand and threw a small fit. (She does not appreciate it when I change the rules.) The next transition? Showed solid improvement.
We decided to end there. Let her reward for a good effort to be that the whole thing ends.
Sometimes it can be incredibly frustrating to go back to the basics because it really can feel like we have gone nowhere in the 5.5 years I have had this horse. The truth is, none of this is natural for May. She wasn’t bred to gallop across terrain and leap over solid obstacles. She was bred to… idk pull a cart? Pull a log through the forest? Look cute? Eat a lot? Who knows. So we just keep chipping away and celebrating the little victories as they come.