Friday, March 7, 2014

Back to Basics, & The Importance of Hunters

Two wholly unrelated topics, eh? I swear, there is a connection.
After our set of lessons two weeks ago, Cadence had to have a wee bit of time off. She had three days off within a 5 day period, which does NOT go over well with her. If she's going to get more than just a day off, she needs a solid 2 weeks off; otherwise I'm left with a stressed, over-energized, bored horse. But thanks to an unfortunately crammed week of midterms, papers, quizzes, and presentations I was left with little choice.

Our first ride back was atrocious. Cadence was flipping out about everything from a pair of reins on the fence, to the other horse in the ring trotting over a pole. The ride turned in to a power-struggle with me fighting to keep control, and Cadence fighting because that's what I was doing so why shouldn't she? In order to make the most  of it, I set my goals, accomplished those, and quit while we were ahead. The next ride had the potential to start off the same way- Cadence was wired, and was channeling her excess energy into misbehaviour. She doesn't do it to be bad, its just that with the footing the way it is the horses don't get to run around during turnout like they do in the summer. And I don't want to free lunge her as the footing in the indoor is still a bit deep in places, & I just can't take that risk. So Cadence seeks an outlet for her pent up energy... and that outlet tends to be spooking, tensing, and trying to go as fast as possible.

When she gets all tense and wired, we lose a few basic building blocks of our training. the most basic of which is probably inside leg to outside rein, and vice versa. Being, by this point, a somewhat trained horse this is a concept which (when we actually have focus) she understands and is quite comfortable with. So while riding a horse who feels somewhat akin to an angry caged lion on steroids... or what I'd imagine an angry caged lion on steroids to feel like... may not always be fun, it's provided me with an excellent opportunity to take a step back and focus on some of the basics we normally take for granted.

For the past week or so, we've had three main goals:
-Respond promptly to my half-halts (without tensing up)
-Move off of my leg into the opposite rein
-Do this while maintaining self-carriage in a relaxed frame

So basically, we've spent the past week in hunter-land. As the week progressed, so did we, with the result being that even though Mare-Face had a day off yesterday I hopped on today and was able to w/t/c a lovely, soft horse in 15 minutes. Yay!

This got me thinking about the importance of hunters. In this area, hunters often get a bit of a bad rap. And to be completely honest, most of the time it's well deserved. However, I've always had a lot of respect for  the good hunter riders. To put it simply, good riding is good riding. And at the root of the hunter discipline lie some very important training goals: softness, rhythm, relaxation, and rideability.  A good hunter must be forward, straight, carrying him/herself, and capable of doing so while maintaining a steady rhythm regardless of what is thrown at them. Relaxation, and therefore softness, are the key to a truly quality hunter ride, just as they should be the key to a good dressage test; its just pushed to the forefront a bit more with the hunters.
Unfortunately though, especially at the lower levels people seem forego these key concepts in favour of focusing on the short-term "quick-fix" issues. People focus more on wether their hair is covering their ears (lest the judge be distracted by flapping ears...) than wether their horse is actually straight or soft, and a 'hunter-frame' is achieved through draw reins and martingales rather than straightness, suppleness, and self-carriage. But that's a story for another day. The point I wanted to draw from this is that a properly ridden hunter round takes a lot of skill, and to execute it properly a horse must have all the basics of good dressage training firmly in place. So Cadence will be entering in a few hunter classes this summer to see just how firm our training is ;)