For the most part, I have left Eli’s walk alone. On a long rein, it’s fine unless he’s cranking his head around one direction or another and popping a shoulder … okay, yeah, we need to work on the walk. Finally.
We have been doing more walking in general. I walk longer at the beginning of the ride, mostly still on a long rein. And then more walking at the end of the ride, not just to cool out — before that. We try lateral stuff (very poorly), smaller circles, just trying to have a forward, engaged, STRAIGHT walk. The forward part is fairly easy, at least.
One of the most useful things I can do with Eli while working at the walk is to teach him to halt with his hind end engaged. As I ask for the halt, Eli tends to poke his nose out and hollow his back, and for years I have done little to nothing about this. We had other challenges to focus on and I wasn’t about to addle his inscrutable brain about it and just end up with a jigging horse and getting nowhere in other gaits. At the trot and canter, we worked on upward transitions, rideability, stretching, relaxing … things we can work on at the walk, too. Maybe I have a backwards approach and I know a good walk is important, but getting a good trot and canter were the path of least resistance.
I ran across an article I really take to heart, and I encourage everyone to read it. Holly Hugo-Vidal writes on the difference between strength and education in the aids. Of course we all aim for self-carriage, but getting there is a long and never-ending journey of using aids effectively to create lighter, uphill gaits and a confident, compliant horse. So much of the article–basically every sentence–made so much sense to me; with my personal experience I could relate to the examples easily. (Plus, agh, I would be devastated if I ever even accidentally marked a horse with my spur! I hate that I have even ever seen it.)
Eli is not by any means dead to the leg, but he can get a bit resistant or dull about bending to the right. An active, light leg has gone a long way to help with this. The longer we work together, the more Eli understands what the leg means. Early on in our partnership, Eli struggled with understanding leg aids, and of course I was overdoing it a bit, too–I distinctly remember one time schooling over fences where I tried to push him over to the left with my right leg and he just shot forward–it was all he knew. And I realized that my own leg was not educated enough at the time to communicate well with this horse who did not understand or interpret the leg well.
Over time, we have gotten much more in sync, and Eli responds accordingly to my leg aids the majority of the time. We have taught each other, I think. I can now use my right leg to push him left and he moves laterally much better, without the leg startling or confusing him. This hasn’t been some on and off switch, and no single component of the puzzle fell into place and everything clicked. It has been a steady process, one in which Eli and I both have frustrating days but they are now rare.
We did, however, have one on Saturday. His flat work was fine, but once we started over fences, he got less and less rideable and I had not been mentally prepared to work through that kind of day on Eli. In all fairness, there was a lot going on–Eli had not jumped in over two weeks, and I had ridden him only twice over the course of the week. There was construction noise coming from an adjacent property (truthfully I think it might have been giving everyone, horse or human, a headache), and some traffic in the arena all came together to unravel us both. I had not initially put on his running martingale, but I did take him back down to the barn to put it on him, and while it helped some, mostly we couldn’t accomplish anything.
I took Sunday as a do-over for Eli. We worked basically on the exact same fences, through the same process we’ve been using — trot fences, trot in and canter out of some lines — and it’s like Saturday never happened. I had my happy horse back, who was still a bit goofy coming off a 3′ oxer, but whatever, he was rideable enough for me.
This doesn’t come from nowhere. It isn’t random. Rideability is developed over time, with educated use of the aids. The less the rider and horse know, the longer it will take for rideability to develop. It has taken years for me to develop it in Eli, but most days I consider him very rideable now.
And so now we work on this same rideability, this same compliance to the aids — at the walk. Perhaps I should have started with that, when I first started riding him. But I think with a forward-thinking thoroughbred, the walk can be the most difficult gait for them to work on and develop into something correct and engaged. Rather than inadvertently get him upside down and backwards at the walk and possibly the other gaits, I left his walk alone all this time. The difference is that now, we are both confident in our level of communication with each other that the walk is something we can work on and be successful. I am not saying we are successful yet, but we have to start somewhere.