Sometimes the reins are just a crutch

We’ve all heard the warning not to hang onto or rely on the inside rein; that we should ride inside leg to outside rein. And, we’ve all heard that we shouldn’t let the horse lean on either rein. But, if you’re like me, you’ve also been told not to lose the outside connection–don’t drop the outside contact! Well, I tell you right now, that is not always the answer. It turns out what I mistakenly took for contact was actually me holding Johnny up. My 17 hand, 1400 pound thoroughbred was relying on my 5’2″, 115 pound frame to carry his butt.
Not all of you may be lucky enough to be stablemates next to an FEI rider who’s willing to trade lessons for the occasional stable care, so I’ll share my experience with you. I explained to Koby that I’ve been struggling with trying to get Johnny to push from behind and that the connection is hit or miss. I mistakenly thought he was straight, but she caught on right away that he was leaning heavily to his right, preferring to carry his weight on his stronger, contracted left side. So, we spent the majority of the lesson on the right rein. As a matter of fact, she had me keep nearly a loose left rein for the majority of the ride. At first, Johnny was obviously disturbed by this. “Mom?! Where are you?! I need you to carry me!!” He quickly realized that since I was no longer falling victim to his insidious ways, he’d have to carry himself. This was easier for him at the walk, obviously, but when we moved up to the trot, he tried his best to get me to pick up that outside rein and carry him. At one point, he spiraled in to a very tight 5 meter (or maybe less–it was small enough to make me dizzy) and threw a toddler tantrum. By tantrum, I mean he fell over his right shoulder so badly that centrifugal force nearly threw me out of the saddle to the left. I dropped the left rein altogether and used my left hand to hold myself into the saddle. He finally stepped underneath himself and increased the circle size so we could carry on. We managed to work all three gaits both directions with upward and downward transitions with minimal resistance. Only after he proved he could carry himself on his inside hind was I allowed to take up more contact with the outside rein, and the difference was amazing. The contact was supremely light but consistent without resistance–the way it should feel all of the time. Koby showed me how to check his shoulders by asking for right flexion–if he was falling to the right, when I asked for right flexion he’d drift right instead of maintaining his bearing. We discussed how reiners will overflex their horses to the left and right at the lope to help lift their shoulders–same concept but on a much smaller degree. The real tell of success, though, was the feeling of swing through his back and the fact that his roar was minimal–he was really, really relaxed. There was no lolling of the tongue, and when the ride was over, he had the satiated look of a gym rat who’s just had the best workout of his life. Endorphins were definitely flowing, and his back muscles were still engaged when I pulled off the saddle. They’re usually tight like violin strings…
I have been fortunate while we’ve been here to receive tutelage from two very experienced and talented dressage trainers. I hope I’m half this lucky when we get to Fort Stewart.

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