On a recent clear, mid-spring morning, clouds scudded across a robin’s egg sky, and sunlight dappled the chert driveway, overhung with hardwoods, that runs alongside my riding arena. I didn’t think there could be a more perfect opportunity to spend time with my horses and let the moments soothe my busy mind.
I was sending my young Thoroughbred mare, London, in wide circles around me at the end of a lunge line at a forward trot. I was encouraging her to reach forward and down and open her throatlatch to find a better balance without me interfering from her back. My job, as I saw it, was to help London by encouraging a steady tempo from her back legs. I watched her hind hooves as they rose and fell again and again and heard the continuous trot rhythm in my head: “one, two, one, two, one, two …”
She gained and lost her balance, her nose falling alternately behind the vertical and shooting up above the bit, but gradually, she was able to keep her balance almost continuously, the crest of her neck curling like a breaking wave and her nose hovering just in front of the vertical as her powerful back legs pushed along under her like a metronome. And so goes the training process for a young horse. This particular lunging session got me thinking about how much training goes into making a horse reliable and balanced, as well as confident and knowledgeable about its job.
I liken the layers of the training process to the application of icing to a cake. Right now, London is in the crumb layer. There are lots of bobbles as she continues to learn to balance herself on the lunge line and under my weight as I sit on her. Each new concept I introduce brings “crumbs” to the surface that will need to be smoothed before another layer can go on.
And then there’s the scenario where a hunk of the cake just falls off and you have to figure out how to reattach it using icing (lots of it) and then smooth it over so the whole structure becomes cohesive again. What I’m referring to is the fact that training is two steps forward/ three steps back. For instance, I recently jumped London over a higher obstacle than she had yet to take on. I had a knowledgeable friend coaching me, and my nearly 17-hand Thoroughbred mare comfortably cleared the jump several times with minimal effort since her legs are so long. She’s going to make an excellent jumper — I felt her abdominal muscles flex with every effort as she collected herself and launched over the fence, and she was very careful to clear the pole with her hind legs. It was wonderful fun, and I think she enjoyed it every bit as much as I did. We only jumped the fence a few times since the height was new for her and she was giving it such a great effort.
This was the highest I’ve jumped her, but it certainly wasn’t her first set of fences. I and my friend had carefully schooled her over tiny crossrails and then 18-inch verticals and other fences progressing in height over the preceding year. This was a milestone we had been working toward for quite some time. But shortly after we soared over that goal, the training situation changed. My friend had to move out of state, and I didn’t have as much time to ride, and a big hunk of cake came loose as I expected it would. London’s balance under saddle started to deteriorate.
So, I did the only thing I thought was logical, and I took a step back in training. We moved back to flatwork so I could rebalance her, and I dug into my trove of training literature to figure out where the fissure was. I soon realized (as I should have known from the beginning) that I myself had become unbalanced and was negatively influencing her. So, I tripped off down that side trail looking for exercises I could do to improve my own level of balance and then be able to monitor it on the horse. I employed everything from “finding” my seat bones while sitting in an office chair (I think I get bonus points for attempting the exercise with two little people trying to spin me in said chair) to lying on my back on my barn floor and doing stretches to release my psoas muscles. A trip down yet another side trail revealed to me that London might need more understanding of how to release her jaw and properly accept the bit, so I learned some new exercises to make her more confident about answering my questions when I asked her to work forward into the elastic contact of my hand. The result is a horse who now has a much softer jaw and marches forward more rhythmically.
I intend to show all of this progress to yet another friend — a veteran in the horse world who may have insights I don’t yet possess, and I would also like my biomechanics instructor to get a look at it the next time she’s in town. Overall, though, I know London’s balance is improving, and think it may even be better than when we jumped the big fence. Putting miles on a young horse is a slow process, but it’s a gratifying one. When I have a chance to hop on one of my older lesson horses, all of whom have had long show careers and understand what I want when I apply leg or hand pressure, the undertaking of bringing London along comes to mean more because I can clearly see all the steps that go into the process. So, I’ll continue to apply icing layers, and I hope next year around this time, I’ll be writing about some even loftier milestone — the riding equivalent of ruffled frosting flowers or sculpted fondant with any luck.