It’s been a while since I’ve had anything new to say about Billy. Probably not since he picked up a couple of blues at Intro level in the Willow Tree Dressage Show last July. My trainer Karin and I have been working with him consistently, but sometimes you just have to wait around until the horse gets stronger, gets the idea, gets motivated by cooler weather, or whatever else it takes to make headway in horse training. Or in our particular case, horse rehabbing.
Backing up a decade or so, Billy was in his prime and looked really good. But he was cheating. Yes he held his head prettily and yes he had a nice long stride. But he was cheating. He was not connected from the push of the hind end to the raised back and withers through to the reaching forelegs and lifting the base of his neck for the complete powerful self-carrying picture. He more or less stopped at the neck part, dropped his back, and let his front end pull him forward instead of giving a good push from behind. When he developed a disabling deterioration of his suspensory ligaments three years ago, all of his bad habits just reinforced what was already physically going wrong.
Today he showed us that he has the chops–somewhat like a jazz musician–to put all the pieces together. It only 🙂 took three years of concentrated retraining on the part of both horse and rider. Which is where this gets really interesting. If I had known what proper movement was supposed to feel like in a horse I would have realized something was wrong many years ago. But developing that “feel” if you don’t have it naturally (and few of us do) is probably the biggest challenge a rider faces. It’s quite difficult to describe what proper movement feels like without falling back on every cliché ever written about the subject: lightness, throughness, engagement, self-carriage, “on the bit”. Books have been written trying to explain these terms and nobody understands them unless they have serendipitously been on a horse who was exhibiting these properties and had a trainer chirp at the exact same moment “DO YOU FEEL THAT????”
I have had brief “do you feel that” moments which I carefully memorized in case I should encounter them again. Today was a watershed day for Billy and me. I could feel him lift himself up, and I could feel the power of his push from behind. I could feel him carry himself effortlessly, and he carried me along with him. I could feel him get his legs underneath his body to balance himself perfectly. I could feel him seek the contact with my hands and rest on my hands without leaning into them. We worked together as a unit. For my part, it was effortless to ride him. Now it must be said that these ecstatic moments were just that—moments. He is still not motivated enough to go properly for a long time. He may get halfway around the ring and then start to fall back into his old ways. It’s my job to recognize the very first moment when he starts to fade and remind him to rebalance himself. The fact that I have become a lot quicker at feeling when he is about to lose it is a big factor in helping him break old habits and make the new way of going routine. Eventually he will discover that moving properly is a lot more comfortable than cheating. And that is what all those clichés are really trying to say.