In May, I asked Nancy for an exercise I could use when Pig completely threw in the towel. Something that we could work on that was simple enough for him mentally let go, and demanding enough that we were still working.
"Ten meter circles," she said. "Boring," I thought. But, as it turns out, they are anything but boring.
We've been living on some form of the 10-15 meter circle for months now. For my stiff and resistant horse, circles are his kryptonite. He can't fake me out on a circle. I can feel the moment he weights one shoulder more than the other, and the second he loses his push with his hind end. For me, they've given me a safe place to practice the juggling of half halts and exceptional feel I need to execute other movements.
Work on these circles has pushed Guinness and I to a new level of work. His flexibility and submission is much improved. Plus, they've become a safe place for us to retreat when something goes wrong in our schooling. Too many wrong answers in our renvers work getting him flustered? Back on the circle to chill out and reconnect. Blowing through my outside half halts while working on a canter medium? Back to the circle to increase respect and lift.
So here's how it starts...
Silly music used to hide the audio I forgot to scrub. (Video link for those with a reader.)We start on an 8-10m circle at the walk. These can happen anywhere, though I usually like at least one side of them to connect to the rail. (If Guinness is going to blow a half halt, it's usually in an attempt to push his shoulder straight to the wall.)
My focus is on maintaining a solid contact on the outside rein, pushing the rein against his neck to guide him around the circle without pushing him over. Like always, I have to hyper focus on making sure my elbows are bent and the rein feels connected to my hips and core for an effective half halt. "Bigger L in your elbows! Raise your hands!" The half halts on the outside keep Pig from falling into the circle and weighting his inside shoulder too much. Little gives and pushes with the rein tell him it's okay to turn.
With the inside rein, I'm flexing. With a stiff horse, this becomes a practice in constant vigilance.
With Guinness this has to be a seamless dance. Too much action in the hand, and he goes on the offensive. A fraction too late with the leg aid, and he's sucked behind the bit. Other horses are much more tolerant of this, I've found.
The leg and seat aids are key factors in encouraging more engagement and a loose back. In the circle, I have to guide the bend with my hips. My inside hipbone needs to point forward, very forward. I think of it as trying to touch Pig's shoulder with my hip. I find that pulling the outside shoulder back helps me get the inside hip further forward. I'm not very flexible, though.
At the same time the inside hip is forward, the inside leg needs to be down. Mine likes to creep up, sort of craving a chair seat position. I work at lengthening the leg to keep my calf on, but not tightening the leg. That's one of those things you have to feel to understand, and once you do you have the idea forever. Having my legs hang long and loosely allows me to give meaningful thumps to encourage forward with my legs without upsetting my seat (and thus upsetting my half halts and contact). That's taken some serious practice.
When we started the circle game, every aid of mine had to be comically over exaggerated. My guiding hip needed to be so far out in front of me, it didn't seem physically possible. My leg had to stay longer and kick more than I thought I could support. And my flexion aids had to be ridiculously huge to get a response (other than tension). After a few months of over exaggeration, we're thankfully beginning to refine things. That refinement is a whole 'nother process. One I'm still working out. Part of that work towards refinement is what you see in these videos.
When we have forward engagement and a nice loose neck and back, we move to the same exercise in the trot.
It feels like dancing, and I suppose it is.
Once we're working together like a good team, we leave the safety of the circle and work on being our awesome selves. The flexibility and respect the circle work has given us then lets us go out and do things like this...