Mind Your Poodles

Aug 8, 2014 - 10:04 AM
Because the stages of development in a young horse are normal, Lauren proposes a new word besides "problem" to describe them. Photo by SusanJStickle.com.

I am a proud college graduate holding a degree in Liberal Arts, which is a bit like an English major, but even less useful, if you can imagine such a thing. I’m a lover of grammar and syntax, and have an extensive vocabulary in a couple of languages. But I need a new word, because “problem” and its various synonyms isn’t cutting it.

The situation is this: whenever I ride with someone, or am discussing my horses with someone, I’ll find myself saying something like, “Well, Johnny’s problem is his lateral suppleness” or “Dorian’s having an issue with the steadiness in the contact.” 

But these are not actually my horses’ problems. While they are the things that I’m working on, their “problem” is that they are 5, and 6, and 7, and the only solution to their “problem” is being ridden well and then eventually turning 12.

Michael was here yesterday and today, and I got to ride four of my six: Bev Thomas’s Fiero went up to the Courtney King-Dye Horsemastership Program with my awesome student Kristin, and Fender has starting trotting again (wahoo!) but is still months away from being clinic-ready, so Caroline Stephen’s brilliant little Grand Prix horse Dutchie, my mom’s 6-year-old Dorian, my Johnny and my Danny (the horse-formerly-known-as-Rocky; I realized about a week ago that he wasn’t so much a bloodthirsty barbarian horde but rather a classy criminal mastermind, and so he’s now—and finally—Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s character in Ocean’s Eleven) got the call.

And Michael always asks me, what’s going on? And I found myself having to choose my words carefully, because of COURSE Danny hasn’t yet perfected his connection. Of COURSE Dorian is inconsistent in the bridle, and that Johnny is a little uncoordinated going sideways. They’re babies. This is not a problem, nor is it a complication, dilemma or bother.

I propose a new word, one that means an obstacle to be overcome eventually, through consistent and diligent application of aids that, while they will absolutely not, under any circumstances, achieve the desired result today, will eventually work, and the rider just needs to have faith and get a grip and keep plugging away at it and, when she’s seriously considering quitting and taking up alpaca farming instead, she should remember that the real solution is five-or-so years of this and that there’s nothing she can really do to expedite the process anyway.

I suggest “poodle,” because it’s fun to say AND read.

The poodle we addressed on Dorian is his stability. He’s a big, powerful horse who responds to a lack of balance just like Midge did at his age—by trying HARDER, usually by shoving his hind legs out behind him and flinging his front legs extravagantly into the air. This is kind of neat, until Step Number 1 ends and you realize that Step Number 2 is going to be about ten trillion feet long with all the turbo working against you. Nevertheless, it is a cheerful mistake, and one that I’m going to deal with by riding him just a little deep when he loses that balance, and then letting him back up and out in his neck once he’s organized.

Danny’s poodle is that he’s so incredibly supple and elastic, and knows lots of cool things—he has incredibly sexy flying changes, and you can hot him up and get him to fling his legs to beat the band—but there’s absolutely no topline to support this whatsoever. He can change and half-pass and almost passage, but can’t trot, canter or turn right with the ease you’d expect of such a trained animal. Of the three, he’s probably the most talented, and so Michael and I determined that it’s my job to leave that talent completely alone until he’s, say, 9, and spend the next three years working on an incredibly boring 20-meter circle riding him on about a 6.5 in all three gaits until I can tweak everything a little bit. Right now if I try and make the trot I’ve got just a little more something—up, open, big, small, out, down, doesn’t matter—the wheels completely fall off the wagon and it takes me 10 strides to do it. I should be able, over the course of several years, to change anything I want in a stride, half a stride, the tiniest moment.

We worked on a couple of Johnny’s poodles. Johnny is the youngest of the group, but he’s also the strongest, for good and for bad. He’s a beast—he has these massive muscles for an animal that doesn’t work all that hard or often, and this gigantic, high-set neck that, when he choses to lock it against me, takes an act of Congress to bust loose. This is also, ironically enough, very Midge-like; I actually started Midgey in the double bridle at 5 because—and bear in mind that I am 5’10” and, let us diplomatically say, an athletic build (ie, were I a man the NFL would be calling)—I could not actually stop him if his hindlegs overpowered his front legs and we got rolling.

So I’ve spent the last year picking away at that neck and keeping it rideable, and his biggest poodle is that I just haven’t quite finished that job yet. So we used lots of leg yields and suppling exercises and making sure he stays around my inside leg.

The second poodle we started dealing with was the flying changes. While my hair is not on fire about them, Johnny’s never offered a clean change to me, whereas Midge and Fender and Fiero would stumble upon them by accident every now and then. So I wanted to make a strategy for getting them to happen, since I figured they would take a little while.

I’m pretty handy with the changes, and truly haven’t spent much time on them at all with Johnny, but I’m always open to suggestions. And naturally, Michael’s first exercise—doing them from the counter canter immediately onto a volte, so he couldn’t shove against me and galavant away—gave me perfect clean changes, so there goes that poodle.

It was a great clinic, almost entirely filled with riders from within my barn, which is neat. And we now have tools for both our problems and our poodles!



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