Frosty is my friend James's horse. He's a grade quarter horse mix. His sire was a mustang, and his dam a grade QH. He's all of 2 years old. James has done a lot of work with him since he was a foal, and he brought him to the ranch this Spring with the express goal of breaking him. Well, it went just great, and James has been riding him rather regularly. I have stayed off Frosty's back...mostly because I don't want to interfere with the bond James has with Frosty, but also because I was a little nervous about getting on such a young horse!
Lately, James has been really struggling with getting Frosty to make a circle. I mean ANY kind of circle at the trot or canter. Frosty goes all over the place, and will swing wide and James can't turn him. He'll have his head bent around and Frosty will still be going straight through the turn, until he runs into a fence. There's been a lot of swearing going on when this happens.
Well, I've just about bit my tongue off to keep from saying much while I watch these episodes. But I've been studying how James rides more intently lately, to try to spot the problem.
Today, my nephew and I rode with James and Frosty in the front pasture. The usual spectacle began to unfold, followed by frustration on James's part.
I got brave, and asked James if I could ride Frosty. I had been wanting to anyway, and here was my chance to see what I could do. Now the pressure was on to see if I knew a damn thing about anything.
I asked them to position themselves in the usual spot where we sit mounted while a rider works the cones. I wanted all the same distractions that Frosty usually deals with. Frosty and I argued a little bit about standing still for mounting, and then I was up in the stirrups. We did some walking, and I was careful to use direct reining with the snaffle in which he was being ridden. I worked my way around the cone, gradually building up energy to the trot. My circles with him were pretty darn good, better than anything James had done with him up to that point, in my opinion. James yelled, "He's OK at the trot. It's at the canter that he falls apart!" Well, I thought that was baloney, because I'd seen how poorly he circles at the trot too, but I kicked him up to the canter. Now Frosty is VERY left lead dominant, and cannot sustain the right lead for very long at all, and I was doing a clockwise circle asking for the right lead; but he did get into the canter and the circle was just as good. I stopped Frosty, and handed the reins to James.
What had I done differently than James to get these results?
When I watched James ride Frosty, I noticed a lot of outside rein pressure during turns. That means Frosty had a pull on the inside AND outside rein. That's not a very clear signal, especially to a young horse. That's going to get a lot of sloppy turns and build confusion and a lack of confidence in this young horse. When I rode him, I was careful to use only INSIDE rein pressure and keep the outside rein quiet and out of his way. I also did a lot of slight pressure and RELEASE as soon as he tipped his nose for me. It didn't take long before he knew that the fastest way to get the release was to give to the bit and tip his nose. Already, he was feeling more confident and sure of himself.
Frosty tends to turn wide. Well, his motor was running but his body wasn't positioned properly. He needed a little help to know how to turn with a rider mounted. So when his turn got a little wide, I used my inside leg to re-direct his hindquarters over so we could then use that motor to complete the turn.
So the combination of more clear reining signals and using my legs to move his hindquarters over kept us turning a pretty circle around the cone. I also tried to focus on keeping my shoulders level. A few times I dipped my inside shoulder, and he cut the circle short. That was MY fault, not his. Shoulders level, and we were fine again.
We circled several times at a fast trot and short bursts of controlled canter. (Remember, he can't sustain a right lead canter yet). It was getting late, and I had to get my nephew inside, so I rode away from James and left him trying to canter circles in the dark.
Later, at supper, James stated some observations he had made that evening. He stated that as a rider, he is unbalanced. That is to say, he has an easier time riding when his right leg is the inside leg, than when his left leg is the inside leg and he has to apply pressure to Frosty. And, he had underestimated how much Frosty needs leg pressure to move his hindquarters over and make a better circle. Remember, this horse is only on about his 30th ride. He's still figuring out this riding stuff. He NEEDS guidance to make a good circle. Also, he admitted that he may be using more outside rein pressure than he should. That is to say, he needs to focus on his reining cues to make things more clear to Frosty.
Honestly, James never circled all that well on his other horse, Bullseye, either. I think what we've really discovered are holes in James's riding abilities.
Now James has taught Frosty a lot of great things, and way they round pen together is amazing. He also loads well, and has a solid foundation in MANY aspects. But eventually, the best ground trained horse has to be mounted, and if the rider's skills are not up to snuff, the great ground horse will not show up when ridden.
I really like these moments: when you finally realize something is amiss, you identify the problem, and start a course of action to correct course. I think James had one of those moments today, and I think Frosty will soon be riding better.
What's that saying? Oh yeah...there are no problem horses, only problem riders.