As an amateur with very little Financial Capital to work with, every second I spend with TrainerA is worth its weight in gold. Whenever I lesson with her my goal is to study the techniques and strategies that she uses to improve Raglan’s training so that I can apply them on my own—and to make sure that Raglan and I are on the path to success, that we’re taking the right steps in the right order.
Last Thursday morning wasn’t a lesson per say. Outside of cooling Raglan out at the end, I never even got on my horse. But I think that watching a professional work with a horse (especially your horse) is an integral part of a rider’s education. It was like a training ride, but with a lecture built-in!
We’d been having a series of no good rides. Every time I tried to pick up the contact, Raglan’s response was to yank the bit out of my hands, duck behind the bit completely, or fly backwards instead. My goals for Thursday were to learn how to use side reins, get some advice on Raglan’s avoidance of contact, and have TrainerA get a closer look at what needs to happen for us to be able to pick up the right lead canter.
Side reins can be a controversial tool. Some believe that they’re a valuable tool for teaching young horses about contact, others think that they create tension or are even downright dangerous. The idea behind side reins is that they simulate a pair of rider’s hands—if said hands never pulled or wiggled and were always ready to give when the horse relaxes. They’re meant to help the horse learn to stretch down into steady contact, plus they can improve the horse’s top line and the quality of their gaits.
Side reins have to be used carefully, though. Because of the nature of the pressure they put on a horse any backward motion can easily escalate, so the handler has to really be on top of their control over the horse.
We started with just the outside side rein clipped in on the loosest setting. TrainerA also showed me how to run the lunge line through the ring of the bit and then clip it to the D-ring of the saddle to create a bending rein. We had one small moment where TrainerA had to pop him on the butt with the lunge whip to stop him from going backwards, but from there on out he behaved like a proper riding horse.
Lunging with side reins is a middle ground between lunging and long lining. The whip represent the rider’s leg (driving him forward) and the line/side reins are the hands (holding the energy). The goal is to have the horse seeking the contact so that he keeps the slack out of out the lunge line. You should never feel like you have to step backwards—in fact, TrainerA wanted me to make frequent changes to the circle and move down the arena wall (sort of like driving) to ensure that he was keeping the line taut.
TrainerA also wanted me to focus on the quality of Raglan’s movement. We want to encourage him to stretch his neck down and out, then relax into the contact until his neck softens (TrainerA said he should look “jiggly”). His trot should be forward, but not so forward that his feet get tangled up and he loses his “floaty” quality. She worked a little bit on his transitions into and out of the canter, but for the most part she built up his strength at the trot—and she did most of it on his right side, since that’s where he’s weakest.
By the time she was done lunging she had both side reins clipped in on the loosest setting. She gave me the go ahead to tighten them up a notch or two the next time I lunged, too!
Once we were done with the lunge, TrainerA hopped aboard to check out the contact problem. She’s a lot more aggressive than me in the saddle, so she easily nixed some of Raglan’s attempts to avoid the bit. She used small bumps to loosen him up when he tried to pull, physically lifted him up whenever he ducked under the bit, and pushed him into a beautiful trot that made him lift up and work hard.
The canter problem was a little trickier. She tried a couple of times to get his right lead, but he just wasn’t having it. Even though TrainerA has much longer legs to me (and therefore has access to more real estate on his sides), he wouldn’t let her push his hip in. He wanted to fall into the canter instead of engaging, and he kept lagging behind her leg when she cued for the transition. It took a lot of fiddling for her to get his body into the correct position for the right lead, and then she really had to support him through it.
For now TrainerA wants me to focus on using the side reins to keep building up Raglan’s strength. She thinks that the right lead problem will start resolving once he’s stronger. In the mean time, I’m also supposed to start introducing turn on the forehand (for haunch control), keep incorporating canter work into our rides, and continue improving the quality of his walk and trot under saddle.