Today was the day for my lesson with Peggy Cummings. For the first time, I felt like I was ready to absorb the wisdom she had to offer. I attended a clinic of hers several years ago; at the time I was not ready to get out of my own way in order to learn. For me it has taken being in a place where I have no agenda, my horse does not have a job. My only goal is to give my mare the best life experience that I am capable of. Horse shows, cow events and other things I used to train towards are all just the icing on the cake now. I supposed if I did have an agenda it would be to continually improve the relationship I have with my horse. A lesson with Peggy Cummings is certainly a step in that direction.
When I lead Grace into the arena, Peggy noticed right away Grace’s tendency to posture herself with her head in the air. Grace has become accustomed to holding her head and neck in a very locked position. Peggy explained that horses naturally move their head in conjunction with their hind feet. It is a slight oscillation, not something that you would necessarily notice. Left hind steps up – left eye turns to the left, right hind steps forward, right eye turns to the right. All the while the head and neck is telescoped forward and down. The end result is a fluid movement. You may not notice the movement in the head, but you will see the fluidity throughout the entire body. More often than not when humans get involved the horse ends up locking down their head and neck. The telescoping is replaced by an upright ridged position, even horses that have been taught to carry their heads and necks low can still be locked down in the poll, turning off the connection to their spine and ultimately their legs. This can be a result of poor saddle fit, heavy hands, an injury or even just an imbalanced rider.
Peggy went over a list of symptoms that could be seen in a horse that had a tendency to carry itself in the frame that Grace has adopted. All of which I was too familiar with – a shorter stride on one hind leg, bunny hopping behind, and falling in on turns. Peggy then said something that Sarah and I had previously discussed; it is a subject that fascinates me. She said “We are unable to change a horse’s skeleton, but we can change a horse’s conformation.” When Peggy began to work with Grace in hand you could see the mare relax her poll and start to drop her head. In a matter of seconds Grace’s posture changed. Peggy said we could now see the potential in Grace’s body.
Peggy stressed the importance of the first few steps of the ground work. She really took her time with Grace, and she was able to show me when Grace had responded. Peggy was wonderful at making sure I “got” it. She would hold my hands in the correct position on Grace’s head, while doing the movements with her own hands. At one point she “combed” my hair with her fingers the way it is to be done on the line. I was continually amazed by how gentle the movements are and how much they accomplish with the smallest amounts of pressure. I started to finally get the feel of using the entire body and not just the hands.
At one point she had me step back and allow Grace to really absorb what we were asking of her. Over the next 60 seconds, Grace’s eye half closed and became soft. She took a deep breath and lowered her head, with no one was touching her, Grace chose the position on her own. Peggy explained that it can take some time for the horses to process. She went on to explain that these 5 minutes I would spend before getting on my horse would be the most valuable 5 minutes of my ride.
It was then that I realized I had been in a hurry without even knowing it. I thought I was doing the exercises by the book, but I was leaving out that critical space in time where Grace could absorb the request. While I have seen some success with the Connected Groundwork that I’ve been doing at home, I have found that when I didn’t get an immediate response to an exercise, I either pushed harder or just moved on to the next exercise. Today’s lesson gave me a very clear picture of when I was getting a response from Grace and when I wasn’t. Grace had a habit of snatching her head down and away from me. I had developed a habit of snatching her head back from her. Grace provided me with a perfect example to show Peggy so I could ask what to do in that situation. Peggy told me not to engage in it, she went on to say that for Grace the number one thing right now is to reprogram her tendency to lift her head before she moves any other part of her body. The pulling her head down and away is part of Grace’s process and was already started to fade during the lesson.
For the riding portion of the lesson I used a snaffle. Not my favorite bit as Grace tends to not be very responsive in it. I already knew before I put my foot in the stirrup that the under saddle portion would not be about Grace as much as it would be about me. Sure enough it only took a matter of seconds before I was pulling out with my left rein for a left turn. I am very aware of the habit, but have yet to be able to train my body out of it. Peggy gave me just the words to find the feel in my body I was looking for. With my seat in “neutral pelvis” she had me “swivel” my body to ask for the turn. My elbows stayed at my side, I had to only think of my hands turning toward the direction I wanted to turn. Before I knew it I was walking Grace though a series of effortless turns. Grace’s head started to telescope down and out in front of her, I could feel her hind end engaging underneath me as her steps became larger and cleaner. For the first time ever, Grace did not drop her ribcage in a turn; she seemed to use her entire spine to complete the turn. I continued to practice my turns at the end of the arena when Peggy started the next lesson. Right before I dismounted I caught a glance of Grace and I in the mirror. I saw a very relaxed, connected fluid horse with a ton of potential. Her balance rider didn’t look half bad either.