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One Ride Out......

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Jan 10
January went WELL! We did all that enforced in-hand learning in the snow at the start, then the snow went, and we started hacking out (trail riding for my American friends!) to get fit.
Sherlock was turned away after the event season in late October, and just it was as we were about to start our hacking that the snow came. We still must do the <BLOG_BREAK>fittening at walk, then increase the schooling gently, so with the delay in starting we will have a later start to the event season. No matter, we have the rest of our lives to do that, and we are having so much fun with the little things that the calendar itself is secondary.

While I was off I have been working on our ridden work. I know that sounds strange, but thinking about my riding seems to have the effect of working on it just as well as if we were actually doing it. I went to see a lecture Demo by Tim Stockdale. This was on a horse that had only been backed a couple of months, and the horse was having his first experience of jumping under saddle. The whole point of the exercise was how it all felt, not the actual jump, the whole experience of how the horse felt as he was being ridden around the school.

Some of the jumps the horse threw were pretty green, in particular when the horse saw his first bounce fences, but the entire focus was on the feel to the rider, the forward  movement to the soft contact, the rhythm, the relaxation.

It occurred to me that I believe I am not so “Goal Orientated”. I mean SOME goal orientation is necessary or I would spend my entire time looking at Sherlock and never get around to riding him, but in the big picture I believe I do not let the goal override the process. For instance we have started the fittening process late so we will be late to start the season, no problem. We would like to move up to novice eventing this season, but only if it is right to do so. So in a Macro sense I am not too goal orientated. I have a plan, and the plan is moveable.

Watching the demo though I realised that I am still missing something. The rider kept on feeling for the correct feel, helping the horse to understand, using poles on the ground to explain it. There was no excitement, no stress. There was joy, when the horse made a row of bounces, or made a huge effort to clear a fence, so it was animated, but in a positive way, and the feel of relaxation and forward movement to a soft contact was always paramount.

The Macro goal of jumping the jump was always secondary to the Micro goal of how it all feels.
It was all food for thought, and now we are starting our hacking I can see how what I have seen will fit into our ridden routine at home.

 I have always thought I am pretty on the ball with hacking. I can stay relaxed and be “plugged in” to the horse’s psyche enough that I can usually stop a shy before it happens. You know, feel the tense ribcage, neck or back, and tell the horse gently “don’t worry, I got it” before he feels the need to react. Often I don’t even need to know WHAT it is that the horse is reacting to, it could be the “horse eating bird” or the JCB, but I think it can be counter productive to try to figure it all out, it must seem to the horse then that you too are scared. If you are “plugged in” well enough you can feel the first trace of nervousness, and calm it right down before anything happens.

Of course with a horse you still have to be alert, to stay safe in the traffic, but I still do not want to be nervously scanning the hedgerows and gardens for scary things. Instead when I am training a horse I use an experienced “outrider” on a steady horse, they will look for things that may well startle a young horse, and control the situation, such as sticking out their arm to indicate to traffic that we are taking the road. For instance in the case of say a drain clearer lorry they will take the road for me, controlling the traffic danger, so I can calmly ignore the hazard.

It can be so funny when we do this, the horse I am on tenses up, I know my partner will have controlled the danger, and I say “I got it, no worries” without even looking at or paying attention to the hazard, and we will stroll on by as if the scary lorry-with-generator-and huge-hose-sucking-drains was not there at all. Embarassing even, the cars must wonder why we “took the road” as we are obviously on the steadiest horses ever!

So, before Vegas we started hacking and I was looking at how Sherlock and I were together. And yes, when we were riding out then as long as the “macro goal” was going OK (you know, walk, on left side of road, head down) then I was being satisfied with that, that was my goal, and we were achieving it. Usually whilst chatting with friends!
I remembered the lecture demo, and started looking at the stuff that is really important and I have realised just how much I have let go. Sherlock tends to be a bit lazy, he is unsteady in his contact, can be inattentive. And I have been letting all this go, I have been satisfied as we were achieving the walking down the road on the left hand side goal. I did make attempts to improve out forwardness, contact and bend/straightness, but it was a puzzle as it was not really improving, it just seemed I was nagging at him more. I was working harder, but Sherlock did not seem to be.

Then Vegas, a great few days away with my mum, and more time to think. I also then had a dressage lesson on another horse I have been schooling, and there too was food for thought. The horse I rode went well, nice schooling, on the bit, doing his various exercises. Macro goal achieved. But I was asked to think about the feel, the amount of effort put in. Ah ha, that was not so good.

It also revealed to me a very bad trap that I was in, the trainer helped me see that Sherlock and this horse are actually very similar. Both go “nicely”, calmly and happily, but both are in a little soft spot, which is somewhat on the forehand, but quite pretty. In asking for improvement it seems to have to get worse before it gets better, and it is that transitionary period that I have been backing off. The “Macro Picture” of horse going around on the bit has been more important to me that the fact that it did not feel as nice as it looked, and I am working double as hard as I would like.


For our next ride out I decided to do a 40 minute at walk SCHOOLING SESSION with Sherlock rather than a plod. WOW. It was HARD! WE started off with Sherlock in his slightly overbent, a bit stodgy off the leg, intermittent in the contact place, and we worked at it. We did half halts, lengthening and shortening. In fact that took half of the ride, to have Sherlock on my leg, in my hand and paying attention and working. I had not realised how much I could put my leg on and not have that come through to the rein. Oh, I KNOW that can happen in front of a jump. Then I put my leg on, he does not always respond and the jump goes wrong. Why oh why did I not investigate where THAT started, as the forward response was not happening for me even at walk around the village! After we were more responsive we then did some lateral work, and we finally ended up straight too!

What a fantastic ride out! I was exhausted. It seems that I do not really RIDE when I ride out. I guess Sherlock needs me to ride all of the time. I have sort of realised this from the start, but it surprises me how many layers there are to paying attention. Maybe it is to do with paying attention passively, where you correct stuff (that “plugged in feeling” ) Verses  paying attention proactively, directing softly every stride. Hmmm, I knew I would have to think on that one. The way Sherlock and I was going was BETTER, but still I am having to work too hard myself.


So often I find that when I have a puzzle the answer comes in the lessons I teach. So, this week I taught two people, on the outside quite different, but both with the same “lesson”. One person aspired to walk well around the arena, the other is ready to start with affiliated competition. Both horses taught me the need for FREELY GIVEN forward movement, into a soft contact.

We worked at it with both of those horses, and they both responded at their own levels, and the difference in both is amazing. With both of those horses the FREELY GIVEN forward movement to a soft contact made all the difference to the feel that the rider had. When we achieved that the horses were easy to steer, soft and willing. The whole feeling was of forward power, harnessed in the nicest possible way. Of course I have been teaching this concept for years, but when so involved in riding your own horse it can be "difficult to see the wood for the trees". Seeing the results on two such different horses is a timely reminder, and I think it helped that both lessons followed each other.
A friend of mine was discussing this idea of straightness with me and I quote from her "straightness, which is really just softness with being able to direct easily" I have found that to have this work though you need freely given forward movement, so you have something TO direct.

So, here I am, ready for more hacking out, now expecting more than the macro goal of walking down the street and ready to work on the micro goal of the feel. Because I am realising that the micro goal is the biggest one of all!



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  1. cordy coupland

    Ruth, I have read this many times and each time I read it learn something new. Knowing that you need to continually ride, evening while out for a relaxing ride; knowing that work to be done is not only with the horse but with ones self. This is a very informative piece and I know I will learn from it the more I read it.Also, having confirmed that without "forward movement" there wouldn't be much to direct. Thank you for taking the time to share these insights with us. Great piece.

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