Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Opening Rein

I had an AWESOME lesson yesterday with Shorty. Shorty has difficulty picking up his right lead canter. As a typically do, I went through the checklist:
  • Saddle fit- I purchased an Albion dressage saddle with a TB tree and had it flocked to him
  • Back soreness- The chiropractor was out a few weeks ago, and Shorty has had several massages. Upon probing, no tucking or flinching has been noticed.
  • Arthritis/Joint Pain- Shorty has been evaluated by two different vets, including the highly regarded Dr. Genovese, who specializes in racehorses. We did everything from radiographs to flexion tests. Yes, Shorty has arthritis; with over 100 starts, that was almost guaranteed. However, both vets felt that Shorty's joint damage is not so far gone that, with proper management, there's no reason why he can't canter on both leads.
  • Management- Teeth are done, trimming and shoe resets are done every four to five weeks in the summer (Shorty grows hoof really, really fast, especially in the summer, so I have the farrier come out once a month May to September), he wears splint boots and bell boots on all four, BCS of 5 (probably for the first time in Shorty's life, he has fat deposits), and Shorty is fit for moderately strenuous exercise.
Where does that leave us? The problem hasn't been solved, although Shorty's life has significantly improved since I purchased him in November. I know that Shorty is capable of doing the work. I also know that, as a lower-level dressage rider, I found myself unable to get the results I wanted to see.

Rather than perpetuating the ugly, vicious circle of me being unbalanced in the saddle, Shorty being unbalanced underneath me, which then makes me more unbalanced, and Shorty is more unbalanced underneath me, etc., I decided to get help. I'm glad I did.

Yesterday, I was reintroduced to the wonders of the opening rein, thus riding off my outside turning aids. On a circle, the instructor, Chelsea, had me take up the slack in my outside rein and hold it steady. I also followed through with my outside leg, closing it when I felt Shorty going beyond my rein and becoming over bent. That part was relatively easy for me because I am familiar with using outside turning aids to push a horse away from me.

The harder part was opening my inside rein. The natural tendency for a lot of riders is to squeeze and half halt the inside rein, which actually causes a horse like Shorty is resist the tug and evade the bit with an open mouth and a hollow back. Instead, Chelsea had me gently pull my inside rein towards the center of the circle, a motion much like the opening of a door. After a few seconds, I would gently bring my hand back. When Shorty started to tense up on his right side, I opened my right rein, keeping my outside aids constant and my inside leg long.

Although there were a few ugly moments where I ended up getting a movement similar to a shoulder in, I was able to spiral in and out of the circle using leg yields and opening my inside rein. Although Shorty did not pick up his right lead, he was more sensitive to my outside aids and he was more flexible to the right. It is difficult for me to break my old barrel racer habit of flexing my inside rein to get inside bend, but I was pleased with the results.

When I first started with Shorty, I was told to counter bend him and force him into the canter. I resisted using that method because it doesn't solve anything; the horse remains unbalanced and no dressage judge would respect that as a clear canter depart. This method takes more time, but overall, Shorty will be more comfortable and flexible as a result. Also, as a result of yesterday's lesson, I've decided to continue my weekly lessons with Chelsea and I have set a goal of riding a training level test at a USEF show held in November. I don't care what score I get, but I want to canter to the right in front of a judge. I shared this goal with Chelsea, who feels that gives us ample time to build, strengthen, and communicate our way to success.


  1. Sounds like a reasonable goal and Chelsea sounds like a competent trainer. My horse Bodhi and I are also having problems with a lead. It is a balance problem as well for us. Keep updating about your progress with the issue I am interested!

  2. Good luck with it, I hope you get the canter lead!