“Scrape, scrape, scrape..” I could hear the distinct sound of Grace’s left hind toe dragging across the wet sand as we entered the arena. I absolutely hated that sound. It meant she wasn’t 100%. Sound – by the very definition of the word Grace wasn’t. On a draped rein, I walked her past the reflective sliding glass door of the club house at the edge of the arena. I could see that while her stride behind was even, it was short she was not stepping up underneath herself.
I knew I shouldn’t be this upset, at our last lesson Sarah confirmed that Grace’s hock was good, she wasn’t in pain. Grace had even held her last adjustment. It was just the muscles now that needed to get strong. We were once again fighting muscle memory. Grace had been off on her left hind for so long, she didn’t know how to use it correctly.
Grace seemed convinced that stepping up underneath herself and crossing over with her left hind was impossible! At least under saddle it was. She was getting the concept on the ground more consistently, but every time I added myself and the saddle back into the equation it all went out the window.
Today I had ditched the saddle and my spurs for the bareback pad and a dressage whip. In our last few rides I started to see the root of the problem. Grace still wasn’t moving off my leg. I was running out of excuses for her obstinance. For the last few months I had worked on my leg position. I was finally done fighting my body and brain, my legs hung long under my hips, my calves stayed in contact with my mare’s sides. After 20 years I had finally let go of the squatty potty equitation position. My low back was no longer hollow and tight. I was able to feel Grace’s hind end movements or lack there of.
As I guided Grace onto a large circle on one end of the vast arena I could already hear Sarah’s voice in my head “Use your outside aids to turn her.” I started to build a gentle wall with my right leg and rein. Grace’s step behind started to feel more even. She was now walking on more of a large square than a circle. I knew the next step would be to bring in my left leg; the challenge would be to do it without pulling on my left rein. I focused on keeping the contact on the outside wall, I closed my left leg. Grace immediately leaned into to the pressure of my inside leg; I instinctively curled up my spurless left heel and gave her a little kick. Irritated, Grace let out a grunt and swished her tail. Sarah’s voice jumped into my head again “DON’T bring your heel up like that! It throws you out of position!” I rebuilt the now lost outside wall of leg and hand, I placed my inside leg just behind Grace’s girth and added pressure. As soon as I felt Grace push into the pressure, I tickled her with the dressage whip behind my left leg. Grace let out a squeal as she leapt to the right, landing in a jigging gait somewhere between a walk and a jog. She was not happy, but she had moved her left hind leg over in response to the pressure.
I gave her a few seconds to settle down. I rebuilt the outside wall again, this time determined to keep it intact when I added the inside aid. This time when I added the inside leg, something clicked. I felt Grace’s hind end step up underneath me. Her stride was longer. I kept the contact elastic in the outside wall, following her head and neck as it dropped lower into the bridle. I started to time the pressure of the inside leg with the motion of Grace’s inside leg. And then it happened. Grace’s wither lifted up from underneath me. A walk past the clubhouse doors confirmed it, her stride behind was longer. My 15 hand mare was now 17 hands tall. Her foot falls were even and clean the scraping sound was gone. I smiled as the feeling of harmony spread over me; we were now in balance moving as one together.
After repeating the same exercise at the walk to the right it occurred to me that this was very basic dressage. Something that had eluded me for many years was fundamental training for every dressage queen that I assumed to be stuck on an eternal 20 meter circle. I took a deep breath, desperate to not lose the moment as I asked for the jog. The transition surprised me; the usual resistance and attitude were gone. Grace’s first step was so big; it almost threw me out of position. I softened my lower back so I could follow hers. As I allowed the jog to build into a trot, I began to regret my recent absence from the gym. My weakened abdominal muscles were not able to stay engaged over the now powerful rhythmic movements of my horse’s hind end. “Saddle tomorrow” I thought to myself “and I need to start running!”
We finished the ride with a lope in both directions. Grace gave me 5 strides in each direction before falling into the big explosive trot. That was a big improvement over her tendency to drop her back and run when she was tired. As we walked out of the arena gate, Grace gave a little jig. It was her “I feel really good right now” dance, usually reserved for after a barrel run or reining pattern.
The next day....
It was early in the day for a ride; Grace was still eating her breakfast. From what I had just seen on the weather report we had maybe an hour before the yellow and green images on the Doppler radar would mean rain over the north end of Bainbridge Island. I had plans to accompany mom to the city for her doctor’s appointment in the afternoon. After yesterday’s ride there was no way I was missing out on today. Belle and I trudged up the hill to get Grace. As she walked across her muddy pasture to join me, I could almost swear she was moving better behind. “No, can’t be” I said out loud. I had driven myself crazy in this exact same spot in the past, always trying to judge her level of soundness from outside the pasture.
We tacked up, this time with the saddle and spurs and headed to the arena. It was the Monday after Christmas, and while I was home from work, the rest of the world it seemed was not on holiday. I could hear the sounds of the morning commute on the nearby highway the closer we got to the arena. The sound of the carpenter’s hammers working furiously to finish the neighbor’s barn pounded out as Grace walked across the wet sand. As we walked a circle on a loose rein, it took me a few moments to notice that one sound was missing. There was no scrape coming from Grace’s left hind toe. We walked by the clubhouse doors on the loose rein; Grace’s stride behind was even and long. Right on cue Sarah’s voice jumped into my head “This mare needs to be in the bridle when you ride her. She gets 23 hours a day when she can do what she wants. Make her work during this one.”
We started out on a large circle to the left. Again I gently built the outside wall. As I closed the fingers on my right rein, Grace bent her neck to the right. I had to soften my feel; she was much more responsive to my aids today. After adding my outside leg to her right side, I said out loud “Inside Leg before hand”. When I brought in the inside leg Grace stepped up into a jog. I exhaled to get her to settle. What was she anticipating? Maybe the same thing that I was? I walked her into a small circle, using my outside aids to turn her off the wall. This time when I added my inside leg, it was there. Grace’s wither lifted the saddle up underneath me, she was 17 hands again. We hadn’t lost it, it wasn’t a fluke, we actually got somewhere during yesterday’s ride.
We continued to work both directions at the walk. Grace was starting to anticipate direction changes and no longer seemed to mind being asked to step underneath with her inside hind leg. I was grateful for the addition of the saddle when we worked up to the trot. I made the decision to post for a few circles, getting my weight out of her back. Grace seemed to float above the wet ground as she lengthened her stride. Who was this horse?
Now it was time for the acid test, could she stay this balanced at the lope? I guided Grace onto a smaller circle to the right at the trot. Keeping the outside wall intact, I asked her to step over and under with the inside leg. Grace’s cue for the lope has always been the release of the inside leg, the idea being that it allows her to step up with that inside leg and step off, as opposed to using an outside leg aid behind the girth to throw her onto that inside leg. It also keeps me as a rider in balance with my horse, all I have to do for the cue is to rotate my inside ankle slightly away from her body, instead of sliding my outside leg behind the girth, potentially moving the balance of my upper body forward at exactly the moment when my horse needs it out of her way.
I released my inside leg, Grace stepped into the lope. It was a clean smooth transition, not the big freaking deal she usually makes of it. I brought the inside leg back in, asking Grace to lift her back. In the past few weeks, this has been the breaking point where she drops her back and runs. Instead, she lifted her back and gave me 10 strides of the cleanest in the ground lope before falling back to a trot. I gave her a big pet and changed directions. The left lead, our nemesis! I didn’t want to give either of us much time to think about it, I asked again just as I had to the right. Grace stepped into the left lead lope like it was no big deal. I glanced down at her head and neck; she was straight, but not stiff. I added the inside leg and her back lifted. After 10 strides, I said “Whoa”. Grace stopped on her hind end and exhaled. I dropped the reins and make a big freaking deal out of her. As we danced out of the arena on a loose rein it occurred to me that I may never have the 1d time at a barrel race, win a championship at a horse show or even a high point belt buckle, but I will know what it feels like to be one with my horse, even if just for a few strides at a time.