After the Sunday morning gymnastic lesson on my horse, I brought Archie up for some more work.
He’s a pretty typical ex-racer, really (except fairly slow-pokey), in that he has a knack for bringing out ALL my bad habits. When I was riding Afton, one of my biggest problems was staying straight and keeping my left arm in the correct place (elbow at shoulder) to the left. When the horses try to lean and cut their turns, my body does this thing where I end up all contorted and using my aids ALL wrong to try and fix it.
So very soon I found I was repeating this with Archie, trying to get him to stay out on his turns by doing some weird funky chicken dance instead of staying straight and using my leg and the appropriate basic rein aids. I did my best to fix it – being self aware really helps – but wasn’t really getting anywhere because Archie is rather… non sensitive to leg.
So, as usual, I found myself having to adjust what we were doing and went back to super-basics. At first I started from a walk, using the wall to try and help him understand I wanted him to move just a little bit sideways. This just seemed to confuse him more, and he began to grind his teeth a bit like he was confused. His response to me asking him to shift over was to start backing up, which wasn’t quite the right answer, though I give him credit for trying.
Since we weren’t getting anywhere and I didn’t want to confuse him any more, I got off and just worked from the ground. Holding the reins I began tapping on his side and putting pressure about where my leg would go, while tapping his hindquarters with a crop. It took quite a while – he wanted to lean back on me mostly, but eventually he began to get it and shift his butt over. From there, I repeated the exercise a few times while NOT using the crop to tap his rear, until he started to get the idea that pressure on his side could mean “shift over”
I re-mounted (giving us another opportunity to work on mounting block manners – he is not worried about it like some of them are, but has figured out how to swing his butt away so you can’t get on) and asked the same question I had just asked on the ground. Again he got a little worried and was grinding his teeth again, then he shifted just a tiny bit. I gave him HUGE rubs and pats and made a very big deal out of him (he does love that), then did it again. We repeated this in both directions several times until he was doing a reasonably OK turn on the forehand.
Then we translated it into forward motion, and at the walk we did a series of small circles, me asking him to move that inside hind underneath him as he turned. He actually picked this up right away so I’m glad I did the ground work. I think it will take a while for it to translate at the trot, just because he’s out of shape, but he’s smart and he’s definitely thinking the entire time you ride him. When he’s trying to figure out what you want he spends a lot of time fiddling with his mouth and jaw, but once he gets it, and you reward him and tell him he did something right, he gets very relaxed and happy. He seems to be the type of horse that picks up on rewards very quickly and wants to please.
For kicks, when I was done I had a friend at the farm who is a relative novice hop on him just to walk around a bit. I wanted to see how he’d respond to a rider who might be a little tentative or nervous. I had no cause to believe he would do anything other than walk, as he likes going slow, but I still wanted to see it. He was a champ. 🙂 My friend wasn’t too nervous, just a little excited to be on a green racehorse and definitely didn’t want to do anything more than walk around. Archie actually was very relaxed for her, began to drop his head and seemed to be enjoying her very much. They walked over some ground poles, and then a pile of poles before calling it quits.
At the same time, his body is definitely both weak and stiff. He needs strength, but also has very limited flexibility. So once again I found myself doing horse yoga after our ride. I started with front leg stretches – first picking up his front legs and supporting behind the knee, and just holding the leg up until he relaxed. Typically they like to hold their own legs up and can resist stretching because they’re not “giving” through their body. It took Archie a full fifteen or so seconds before I felt all the muscles relax in his left front. Once they did I slowly stretched the lower leg forward and extended the leg. Immediately he was resistant to this, so we did it a few times until we got a proper shoulder stretch. When I did the other leg I found it much easier – he was more relaxed on the right side and also much more flexible. His left is the leg that has the bigger knee – I really think he feels good on it now, but as he ended his racing career probably held more tension on that side of his body to protect it. So we will be working a LOT on getting him equally flexible and loose on both sides.
We also worked on stretching the front legs back – I picked up his feet and used my leg to gently push his upper leg backwards, rotating the shoulder the other way. He was pretty good on both legs for that. After that I added some lateral stretches – and for these you have to be careful because you don’t want to tweak their knees. I use my legs to support the knee and my hands around the cannon bone and pastern as I stretched his front legs out towards the side, and then in.
Moving to the back legs, I repeated the process in the opposite directions. I started stretching the hind legs backwards (after just holding under his hocks till he let me have the limb completely). He was great for this stretch on both sides, responding to very gentle touches above his hocks by straightening the leg out. Much harder for him was pulling the leg forward towards his front legs. He reacted to this by jerking his leg away so I only asked him for little stretches. The last ones I did with the hind leg involved pulling the leg forward but also very slightly to the inside. He was much better for this with the right leg than the left.
Then we did some back stuff – cat stretches, a pelvic tilt, and carrot stretches. He’s not very flexible through the back and neck at the moment but very food motivated, so we got some good stuff at the end.
I think that will really help him. After our session he walked out of the barn with a much bigger stride than he walked in with, so I’m hoping it felt good to him.
I think he’ll be going really well fairly quickly, as long as I remember to sit straight and we work on giving him the physical ability to do what we’re asking.
I think I’m also going to get our resident dressage guru on him a few times when I can be there to watch.