It was snowing all day today. I got off an hour early from work because of the weather and instead of heading home like all the other drones, I changed and headed to the barn.
I was the only one there. That was ok by me, however. I tootled around getting mash buckets set up for the six horses so the beet pulp and timothy hay had an opportunity to soften while I rode. Then I got Ashke groomed and tacked up. There was a new two inches of snow on the ground and the snow was falling heavily. Ashke snorted and looked around while we walked to the indoor, but overall was wonderful.
I had spent some time evaluating what I could do to make the "off-the-rail" exercise better for Ashke. He was really struggling with the changes of direction and I really thought his frustration and hesitation was due to him not understanding what I wanted. Looking at it from his point of view, I have been riding the rail in that arena for a year, working him to stay on the rail, and now all of a sudden he is expected to ride off the rail. He really wants to please me, but he also wants to understand what we are doing.
I decided it would be best to start with a different pattern and work through that, staying off the rail, and changing the direction more frequently, because we always work for a long time in one direction, then change and work for a long time in the other direction. I also brought a pocketful of peppermint horse cookies for immediate reward.
Ashke walked up and positioned himself at the mounting block. I set down the dressage whip and mounted. He stood until I told him to move off. We walked a couple of circuits in both directions before getting to work. We started in the center of the arena, facing the mirrors (long side), and stopped. I asked Ashke to move forward at a walk in a circle to the right, with some bend through his ribs, and then come to a stop at the point where we started. It was a little bit of a struggle to the right, but he managed it. We stopped in the center and he was praised. Then we moved to the left on a circle, at a walk, then back to the middle to a stop. Basically a figure eight, with the center of the figure eight in the center of the length of the arena.
We did it at a walk. Then we moved to a trot, coming to a walk in the middle, before switching directions and moving back up into the trot. He did great. By the end of our ride, we were riding a comfortable figure eight, sometimes mixing it up by doing two circles at one end before moving back into the figure eight. He was soft and listening, completely focused on what I was asking. He also got really good at reaching back for his treat whenever we stopped for praising and rest.
I decided that was enough of that exercise and pulled out four poles. I spaced them out at what I thought was the correct distance, and began to trot through them. He bonked them. He tried to gallop through them. He did a rocking horse jump over them. Each time I praised the effort, turned him in different directions in a small tight circle and went back over them. He finally got three of the four poles in rhythm, but not the first one. It is so much better than he was in July and August. He is able to pick up his feet and travel over the poles without hurting his back or hamstring.
Finally, I stopped and put all the poles away except one. I started on the ground and had Ashke stand over the pole. This is something he refused to do last summer, but tonight he was tense but he tried. Then I showed him how to step sideways in a sidepass, keeping the pole between his front and rear feet. It was hard. He got scared and unsure. I was calm and although I was using the dressage whip, I was very careful not to hurt him or scare him with it. I was using it to help communicate the cue all the way along his body. He finally stepped sideways instead of throwing his head up and lunging backwards with stiff legs. He got the last of the peppermints for that.
I got on him and we tried it again. He sidepassed three steps to the right. And then he did it to the left. Both times he kept the pole positioned between his front and back legs. He got lots of praise and then we were done.
I think he loved working on more than one thing. I know he loved getting the peppermint cookies when he figured something out. He was curious and attentive and I was patient and calm. The couple of times when he started to freak out, I just stopped and reassured him, then went back to the exercise. I haven't felt this happy about how I was with him since our last trail ride. He is always the same with me. The change is what I bring to the table, to our interaction, to our relationship.
I was very proud of his effort and him figuring out what I was asking him to do.
Best news: it looks like there is a real possibility of TMR hosting a Working Equitation show this year. We are going to talk about it with Cassandra and Sherl on Saturday. I'm so excited, I have chills.