We are literally logging a mile at a time right now on the Virtual Tevis, and are sitting at just a touch over 9 miles, which means on the ride, we would be winding our way through the Squaw Valley ski resort, on a mix of single-track trails and dirt roads, climbing and making our way towards High Camp.
After the Granite Chief Wilderness, this was one of the prettiest parts of the ride. I had a really good space bubble and was off and on riding with some people I knew, so that made it really fun. I actually made a couple of navigation errors through here, overshooting some critical turns and trail junctions, but fortunately, there were enough people around that I never went more than several hundred feet off course, but still. Highly unusual for me, because while I’ve struggled with pacing, navigation has always been solid.
At the ride, the general wisdom and caution is “don’t go out too fast too early.” I like the think that’s applying to our progress on the virtual ride as well. Baby steps, foundation laying, and slow progress…but the idea is to keep moving forward in a positive manner, and not rush and end up having to backtrack.
To start, it didn’t take long for the first gremlins to make themselves known, as a deep scratch right on Liberty’s girth line (self-inflicted, via rubbing on some bushes out in the pasture) derailed our riding plans for about 10 days. It was deep enough and she was sensitive enough to the touch around the area that adding pressure and friction from a girth didn’t seem like a good recipe for success under saddle.
But by today, she was healed up enough to saddle up, accompanied by a healthy layer of Desitin, and a fluffy new sheepskin cover on the girth. Our air quality right now is horrid, between the smoke from CA, as well as a solid batch of our own fires here in AZ, so that curtailed the notion of doing much by way of vigorous exercise.
But that’s okay, because right now, “strenuous” isn’t really our objective. The objective is getting to know each other, learning to work together, laying the framework for a solid partnership. And let me tell you, Liberty is one of the smartest horses I’ve ever worked with. Smart, a good communicator, and probably the most connected/partnered horse I’ve ridden. She has an incredibly strong try and so badly wants to bond with her rider…but also believes very much that partnership is a two-way street and that both entities have to uphold their end of the bargain.
Last weekend, we ended up doing a session in the roundpen, but when we were done, I felt very disquieted by how I had approached the whole thing. Liberty was very “up” — it had been a week since she’d had any work, and the smoky air had all of the horses just a little bit more on edge than usual. So I took my usual approach of, “go into the round pen and burn it off” with the end result of me driving her around, and some very strong moments of cracking the whip and forcing her through some sticky spots, the same way I’ve always handled Mimi.
It got the point across…maybe…but afterwards, I didn’t feel good about it. Yes, she’s a strong, dominant mare, who definitely needs some work on her ground manners and respecting personal space bubbles, but I get the sense that being that forwardly dominant and aggressive isn’t the best way to work with her.
I watch her in the herd with the other horses — because of how she’s grown up, in a herd setting and with lots of other horses, she knows horse language. She doesn’t start fights, or pick on other horses. She doesn’t let herself get pushed around or bullied, but doesn’t go looking for trouble. She gives a lot of warning, and is a very strong communicator before escalating.
It’s something that’s hard to describe exactly, or put my finger on, but I just have a feeling she’s a horse who responds best to softness, and that being louder and bigger is going to put her on the defensive, rather than get results. Now, by soft, I don’t mean tentativeness or timidity. One of the things I love about her is that she’s not a horse you have to be on eggshells around. She is so stable-minded and solid, very non-reactive, and things just don’t seem to faze her. So it’s not like I have to worry about “setting her off.” It’s more, “how little can I do in my ask and get a response from her?”
The phrase “Tell a gelding, ask a stallion, discuss it with a mare”? She is truly the epitome of a “discussion” mare. She’s strong-minded, she’s spirited, but she’s also trying so hard to connect if given the chance.
Today ended up being very productive, and the source of the above revelations. We started with some in-hand work…but rather than running her around, I chose to utilize the trail course for a more purpose-based session. As I mentioned, we’re still working on staying out of personal space, and taking direction well on the ground. By incorporating in-hand work over poles, around barrels, step-ups on the platform, it became work with a purpose and a a clear objective. And we did it together. I wasn’t standing still and making her run circles around me. I was actively engaged with alternating between leading and directing her, providing feedback or correction as necessary.
After about 10 minutes of that, I climbed aboard and we continued our work in the trail course. Originally I used the trail course because it was the available space — the arena was being used for turnout for most of the herd, and it was easier to not have to bring everyone in — but I’m finding that working her with the obstacles is a really good way to get her brain (and mine) to focus on something tangible, whereas in the arena, it’s easier for both of us to get distracted.
One of my biggest shortcoming as a rider (aside from dealing with nerves and some anxiety, which, y’know, is a biggie in its own right and really deserves its own post at some point), is that I’ve gotten a bit lazy. The thing about having a long-term partnership with a horse (24 years this fall with Mimi) is that you end up falling into habits, and it becomes hard to break them after you’re so used to each other. Mimi, bless her, has been supremely tolerant, and we did pretty much grow up together, so there was definitely some of that “learning together” that ended up being hard to undo later because “Why bother? What I’m doing is working, or at least, I’m getting away with it.”
Something I’ve never bothered with is developing a strong core. Which is probably at the center and core (ha!) of any and all of my postural nitpicks and issues. (Would probably also help me in the confidence and balance department, eh?) I have a very bad habit of being a “hands first” rider. I rely far too much on the reins for balance and control, and tend to be “handsy” with grabbing at the reins first for steering, etc. I have fairly quiet hands, and have worked very hard over the years to keep them kind and not harsh…but they are controlling. I ride with a lot of contact and have a difficult time giving up that security blanket of control.
So between the hands and the core, my cues tend to look something like “rein first, then look, then add leg.” Which is, of course, completely wrong, but I’ve gotten away with a lot of bad habits over the years that I’m now going to have to very consciously work on correcting. And Liberty is just the horse to do it, because that mare has no problem with clearly communicating, “User error, please try again.” She has a lovely, soft mouth (and I will keep it that way) and is sensitive to the bit, so if I get too handsy, she gets very fussy. But if I actually use my (non-existent) core, sit up, look, add leg, and the finally finish with rein, she steers beautifully and doesn’t get at all fussy or balky. And when I actually use my core, I’m not perched or clingy, so more relaxed, and so she’s more relaxed, and I feel balanced and centered and don’t have to rely on a tight hold on the reins to anticipate every little move…amazing how it all ties together and comes together when I sit up and ride and don’t let myself fall into my lazy rider habits.
I thought I was going to be the one teaching her. But as it turns out, I think she’s going to have plenty to teach me as well. Along those lines, I’ve signed us up for a collaborative Mark Rashid-Jim Masterson clinic in January. I am so excited for this opportunity. Mark Rashid has been a clinician and horseman that I have followed for years now, and of course Jim Masterson is The Masterson Method, which is the equine bodywork certification program that I’m currently going through. And since starting that, my appreciation for the application of softness and how effective it is, has only grown, and is rapidly changing so much of my outlook on what I want my horsemanship to look like.
So although our miles are light right now, I feel like we’re making some major breakthroughs and progress, and doing it on the terms that leave all parties involved comfortable and still speaking to each other at the end of the day.