Eragon & I had our first “public” outing, a clinic with Canadian Eventing Advanced/Olympic rider Bruce Mandeville. Like Stacey at Behind the Bit, this was also our first real debut (though it was here at our farm).
Lately, Eragon’s canter–and more specifically our right lead canter–has become a bit of a sticking point. He prefers the left lead, and unlike other less-balanced youngsters, trying to throw him into the lead doesn’t work, since he can pick up a counter canter almost anywhere, and is perfectly balanced doing so. I’ve had Kate, my trainer here at the farm, jump on him a few times to help, but even though she can get the lead (with some effort, to be sure) I have only about a 10% success rate lately.
So, I was hoping Bruce could help. I was nervous about clinicing with my freshly-turned 4 yr old, and the day before, I washed his white socks, Show-sheened his tail, cleaned my saddle and bridle, polished by boots and busted out my new baby blue gloves, to match his saddle pad…I got out to the barn at 11 (our ride time was at 1:30pm) with the hopes of watching some other lessons before my own. This hope was dashed when Kate said “Um, you might want to get Eragon–he may need some extra grooming time.” Of course, Eragon had rolled in mud, multiple times. When I brought him in, he was covered with caked on mud, at least an inch thick. There was mud on his face, on his back, everywhere. And it was wet! Even though it was a chillier day (60ish and windy) I had no choice but to spray him off. I put him in a cooler, but knew I couldn’t put him in a stall since he would for sure roll and likely get cast. So I walked him in the indoor, round and round. He entertained himself by trying to nip at my hand, grabbing his own lead rope and pulling, and finally reaching down, grabbing the edge of his cooler, and pulling on it as hard as he could. He makes his own fun. I lunged him briefly, to dry him and entertain him, but I didn’t want to tire him out for our ride. At 12:50, I brought him back into the grooming area.
Now, Eragon is a creature of habit, and tacking him up is always an adventure. While he is always good under saddle, he can get impatient with being tacked up–especially if it takes too long. So, since he was already antsy and bored, standing and being groomed/tacked after an hour of being walked was a recipe for disaster. On top of that, horses from other farms were arriving for haul-in lessons with Bruce, so Eragon had to stand while trailers pulled up and strange horses walked by. He danced, walked up then backed up in the cross ties, stomped and finally briefly stood up when a grey horse in a head bumper walked by. It was all too much for him, and I knew his energy was reaching the breaking point. “Just get his saddle on,” I told myself, “he’ll settle then.” Eragon always settles down when I get his tack on–maybe because then he knows he’ll get to work out his energy, or maybe because some of his hyperactivity is simply excitement about the ride and impatience about it getting started. Sure enough, once the saddle was on, he calmed a bit, and once I got the bridle on, he was chewing and sighing and happy again. He is a totally different horse in tack.
It was too windy/distracting to ride outside, so Eragon and I rode indoors. Like always, he was professional and focused once we hit the ring. Bruce came in and I was instantly at ease–he seemed completely down to earth and personable. He asked me about my riding background and my plans for Eragon. “Well, I bought him as a dressage prospect,” I began, “but I don’t know, if he really takes to jumping, who knows?” Bruce said that Eragon was like a “little sportscar” and would probably be a natural eventer. We walked around the ring, and Bruce soon stooped me to show me three different ways of asking Eragon to supple his jaw and/or bend. One was called “sponging” a grip and release of the rein that is like squeezing a sponge. One was called “vibrating” which is just that–vibrating the rein to encourage the horse to give. Finally, he showed a third rein-use, though I don’t remember what it was called. For the purposes of this write-up, I’ll call it flexing. This involved turning the hand inward from the wrist, basically a stronger bending aid then the other two. In each case, the outside rein should be gently taken up at the same time. We tried these with Eragon and he was very responsive. Bruce also flexed him by hand and commented how soft and even he was from side to side. That made me feel good. I know Eragon is soft in his body and jaw, but I also know that he tends to get into a a bit of a fixed frame at the trot and doesn’t engage the bit enough. Right away, these new techniques made a difference–he was licking and chewing, and softly rounding up in the walk work.
Once we started trotting, Bruce’s first comment was about what a nice mover he was and how good his energy was. Eragon’s first steps of trot are always fancy! Almost immediately, though, Bruce stopped us. “You’re nagging with your heel,” he pointed out, “the horse will ignore you if you keep nagging.”
I know I have a problem with nagging with my heel, but Bruce made a connection I had not yet made between that bad habit and the right lead. “You see, you lift your knee when you put the heel on. That shifts your weight to the outside, and causes Eragon to pick up the left lead. You need to lengthen your leg and use it to help him yield from it. Use it in a nutcracker motion. [meaning, lengthen the leg, and put the whole leg on at the girth to get him to move over].”
This was really hard for me, and when it was right-lead-canter time, I wasn’t sure I had all this new stuff down enough to make it happen. Bruce seemed sure we could do it, so I recited his advice to myself as we went into the corner. “Flex, LENGTHEN YOUR LEG, then ask him to move over with the right leg [nutcracker], then using a scooping motion with your seat, ask for the canter right after H.”
It was a lot to keep track of, and we missed it a few times. But we got the lead three whole times, and cantered around a few times. Bruce noticed I was holding my breath it the canter (I get so much adrenalin going just to get the canter, that the canter itself seems like an afterthought!); he also really encouraged me to get Eragon more FORWARD so he learns he can canter, and carry me, too.
I was really pleased with Eragon, and myself. Bruce really broke down the aids for me, and gave me some new tools. I also realized that I need to put my ego/stress aside and really just focus on the nuts and bolts of riding to get that canter down. I’m hard on myself, and while this trait does drive me to constantly seek to improve my riding, it can also make me flustered when things aren’t going well. That doesn’t help my young horse learn, so I need to just back up and clarify my position when things get sticky. It was a great clinic–and I can’t wait to ride again.
Bruce also really liked Eragon’s build/way of going. At the end of the lesson, I overheard him mention that he looked/moved alot like a Catherston Dazzler baby, but in miniature. I looked him up and talk about a resemblance! Dazzler has the same short back, strong loin, big butt and shoulder as Eragon. I need to get new confo pics of Eragon, but he is definitely the same “type” as Dazzler–handy, sporty, short-coupled and round. Just my type.
Eragon seemed happy with how the clinic went, too. As I walked him down the aisle to turn him out, he expressed his joy by grabbing an empty haynet off a hook and whipping it around festively.