After all the lessons, clinics, trail rides, books, videos, physical challenges, vet visits and our own unique experiences & personalities, I want to share with you what a day training Leah looks like.
Whenever I go out to work with Leah in saddle, I allot myself 1.5 hours minimum. I'm addressing the whole horse--body, mind, and spirit, and that is the least amount of time I can do everything I need to do.
I start by going to get her. If she's in a stall, I expect her to come to me or face me. If she doesn't, I call her. If she still doesn't, I may swing my lead rope toward her hind. If she runs out of the stall, I wait for her to come back in and face me. If she's in the pasture, I expect her to stand still. If, when we're haltering, she puts her head way up in the air, I massage her poll and face until she drops her head willingly into the halter.
If we're riding, I always massage Leah in the arena, rather than the barn, first thing. The reason why is because I want her to relax where we're going to ride. She's already relaxed in the barn. (On days we don't ride, however, I do massage her in the barn.) On the way there, I have her lead on a loose rein. If there happens to be a big rain puddle, I ask her to cross through it. When we get to the arena, I close the gate and throw the rope over her back. I start the massage by running my hands along her top line--looking for any soreness or sensitivity. From there, I concentrate on the poll, neck looking for knotty spots or sensitivity. Usually she tells me where she wants to be worked. Here's a great diagram of the different muscles on a horse.
After that, I bend her in and get my hand behind her shoulder and work my way down. She loves that work and it really helps her bend in.
After her massage, we walk around the arena both directions keeping her always on the side of the rail. This gives her practice being led on the right and left side, which I hope will balance out her left dominance. Some days, we go around 3 times both ways and then I throw the rope over her back and lead her all over the arena hands-free. This walking is good for her and me. It warms us both up, gets us connected to one another, and works off some steps towards my Fitbit goals.
We may also do some flexion and disengagement of hind-quarters.
Then we go off to saddle. Before we saddle, if I haven't already, I groom her and do another body check for pain. Leah is really good with saddling. I don't bridle her at the saddle area. Instead, I throw the bridle over her saddle horn, put on my helmet, and walk her back to the arena.
At the arena, in saddle, a new phase starts, and it's as if we are starting from scratch. So, we walk around the arena again, both ways, we bend and disengage, and then I start the process of bridling. If, during bridling, Leah starts with her head way up, I massage around her poll, ears and face until she drops her head. Then I present the bridle to her and see if she stays relaxed. If she does, I place it onto her and get it secure, walking around on both sides to make sure it fits well over the brow and under the neck.
When everything looks good, I tighten the cinch again, and bend her in both ways with the bit. Then I'm ready to mount. I can mount from the ground or a mounting block, but I mix it up so that she learns to stand for both. My mounting block is a turned-over trough--so nothing fancy!
In saddle, before I ask anything of her, I drop the reins and massage her neck, poll, and when she turns in, her face. During that time, I also get my own seat underneath me--trying to balance up and get my back straight and legs relaxed at the sides. When we're both ready, I ask her to turn and disengage her hindquarters both ways. This helps her practice turning tight and moving all four feet. She's gotten much better at it in the last couple of months. Losing weight probably helped a ton! After the turns, I squeeze my legs and ask her to move out.
The next part has changed over the last couple of months, but since she no longer pulls to the left (Woohoo! That is OVER! No more bag, no more crop! Solved in less than one week!) I throw her the rein and ask her to move out on the rail. At this point, I still have the reins in my hands, but they are loose. I try to influence her with my body only. If I start to feel her get unbalanced--which makes the saddle feel off on one side or the other--I put more weight on the weak side at each step to that side. I make sure to move my hips with hers, and I work my legs in a similar walking pattern to Leah. After a while, going around the arena both ways and working on walk-trot transitions (I'm trying to get her to do the transitions smoothly), I throw her the reins all together and work on hands-free cues.
She LOVES this part! Leah is a great candidate for bridleless, bit-free riding. I'm actually shocked. Just three months ago, if you remember, I thought she needed "lots of support" with the bit. Ha! I was wrong! Support to Leah is giving her room to make mistakes--lots of room. The more room, the less "mistakes."
When working on the stop, I try to use body CUE first, then voice cue, if she doesn't hear my body. Since we're new to this, we still need the voice cue.
In this video you see her ears go back, that's when I sat back and pushed my heels down. She was listening for something, she knew there was going to be a change, but she wasn't sure what. Then, I added the voice cue and her head went up and she stopped. We'll keep working on this until she's so comfortable with my body cue that her head stays in a relaxed position and she stops without voice cue. Leah tends to get a little anxious about any new cue--until she realizes she is doing the right thing. She's a sensitive soul!
We're also working on hands-free turns with leg pressure only. She tends to want to trot off and resist turning right now, but I go with her and pick up the rein lightly when she ignores the leg. When I get the turn, I praise her to high heaven. She loves praise when it involves being petted. It always relaxes her and we make much faster progress.
I'm very new to this way of training with Leah. I use a loose rein and hands-free with Cowboy, as with all my trail horses, but Leah being green, I rejected those basic principles, scrambled for more control and made a mess out of her. Now, I feel like I'm working back from a negative position. She expects a heavy hand on her mouth and her head goes up a lot when she anticipates it, and I'm having to prove to her that rider is GONE. I think that's why I get her very best when we go hands-free. It takes the worry out of her for a bit/rein cue. It strips all the layers away and allows her to concentrate on my body cues.
She's a happier horse and, honestly, I'm having WAY more fun, too. What we are doing is so much more satisfying. It's the deep soul stuff, the WOW moments, as Rebecca calls them.