Laura at Poseidon Sport Horses has been riding Mystery regularly for the past several weeks. The groundwork from earlier sessions has really prepared Mystery for her saddle time with Laura. Just like on the ground, Laura helps Mystery learn how to move her shoulders and front legs more freely from the saddle. The rides are thoughtful and slow — so that Mystery can experiment with these new ways of moving, while also building confidence in what Laura’s quiet leg aids mean.
Before each riding session, Laura stretches Mystery’s forelegs, one at a time. She holds each leg out in front of Mystery (being careful to gently lift and then steadily support the leg — so that Mystery doesn’t feel suddenly off balance). And then Laura carefully pulls and rocks the leg slightly for a gradual stretch. In addition to working the tight areas softly, these stretches also encourage Mystery to shift her weight more fluidly to her hindquarters (so she can balance comfortably on three legs during the stretch).
It is a bit like watching a ballerina stretch her legs on the barre before dancing — Laura acts as the support, so Mystery can get the benefit of the best possible stretch without any strain or tension.
Laura then mounts Mystery and begins riding her around the arena. Just like during the groundwork, she encourages Mystery to open up and move her front end more freely from the saddle. Under saddle, the tightness in Mystery’s shoulders (especially her left one) is seen as a sort of constant lean to the left when turning in that direction. Mystery will step heavily into that shoulder, instead of having a light bend or lateral quality into the left direction.
To discourage that (without being in any way punitive), Laura will ask her for a step or two of a turn on the haunches — so she will slow the movement from Mystery’s hindquarters and encourage her left foreleg to step out and over to the left. This stops the heavy, leaning step — since Mystery is now starting to balance on her hind end for a few steps while Laura at the same time asks for a more of sweeping turn movement from the left foreleg.
That sounds complicated and dramatic — but it’s actually quite soft and simple. As Mystery starts to circle to the left, she becomes heavy on the left side (due to her tight left shoulder) — so the circle becomes a stiff amoeba shape. Laura immediately counteracts that by asking for Mystery to think about shifting weight behind (which lightens the front end) and turning for a step or two away from her haunches.
The same is true to some degree when Mystery is circling to the right. Because her left shoulder is tight, her entire left side has trouble stretching and curving on the outside of the circle — so the right side of her neck and body has trouble bending to the inside. By asking again for a turn on the haunches (even if only for a few steps) to the right, Laura helps Mystery again remember that balancing her weight on her hindquarters and then stepping up and to the right makes things much easier.
Laura’s circle exercises with Mystery were soft and spread out — it would be very hard (and boring) for Mystery if Laura demanded constant perfect circles repeatedly from the beginning to the end of the ride. The training session has more of a slow motion gymnastic stretching routine feel — instead of a regimented “You will now do 15 PERFECT circles” tone. Although Mystery is unusually poised and mentally mature for a 4 year old filly, it is important to remember that she is quite young and is still learning how her body works — thus her attention span and capacity to take in new information is not the same as a seasoned eventing horse or dressage mount.
Taking the time to do things slowly and help Mystery “discover” how she can move in new ways is a much more effective training approach at this stage of the process.
By the end of the ride, Mystery was stepping out into longer strides with much more confidence. Her neck relaxed into more of a draping posture and she seemed very pleased to find that her hind end really could take on more of her weight.
A few days later, I returned to watch another ride with Mystery and Laura. The change was quite marked. Mystery started the session with much more flexibility in her front end — while still a little tight, she moved with a great deal more looseness than at the start of the previous ride. It was as if she was saying, “Ah, I remember that I don’t HAVE to start out tight — my shoulders can move differently.”
Laura commented on Mystery’s willingness and intelligence. She had noticed that she could ask Mystery for a particular movement by cueing her softly (as if Mystery already knew refined aids) and then waiting for Mystery to figure out what she wanted. As Laura put it, she “whispers” to Mystery through very gentle aids — and then waits (without turning up her “volume” on the aid at all) while Mystery “listens” closely and then responds to the aid. Very unusual (and awesome) response from a 4 year old filly!
Laura wants to be sure that she doesn’t accidently shut down that incredible softness in Mystery by rushing her or “shouting” at her with her leg and rein cues. Another trainer might be tempted to push Mystery at this stage — to ask her to take in more aids, cues and training tasks. But Laura rightly sees that as an unwise approach — while Mystery is very willing, she also is sensitive and young. She might easily become shut down or resentful if overfaced with too many new things by an overeager trainer.
Taking the time to build the foundation slowly always is the best approach. Ray Hunt used to say that the long way is the short way. If you skip the slow, important steps at the beginning of the process, you will have a much bigger set of issues to deal with later on.
Laura also discussed the importance of building confidence in a young horse. Too often she has seen people assume that “confident” equates to an “attack” kind of vibe in the horse and rider team. In that mode, faster is better — which sets the stage for all types of mistakes and misunderstandings. As Laura said, if you ever ridden a horse that rushes to the jumps — you know how that just doesn’t feel very confident, controlled or balanced. It simply feels rushed and slightly frenzied.
Mystery has a great, open attitude — when Laura asks her to do something that seems a little impossible (like moving laterally to the left), Mystery responds with a tone of “I’m not sure how that can work, but I am happy to give it a go for you and see what happens.” This is a rare and marvelous quality — and any training that discourages that response in Mystery is going to be ineffective.
Nurturing that quality is what develops true confidence in a young horse — so that when they encounter situations they don’t understand (as they all will one day), their response is “I’m not sure at this moment how that will work — but I know it can, because I trust you as my rider and I trust myself to figure out what you are asking me to do.”
That’s the kind of confidence we like to see at LOPE…
Mystery will be in training with Laura during November too. She will be up for adoption soon — if you are interested in learning more about Mystery or perhaps watching one of her training sessions with Laura, please contact Lynn at LOPE.