ß Meet Star. She was nicknamed "The Flying Sofa" during the 2009-2010 Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) show season because (at least to my understanding): A) Sitting on her is pretty much like sitting on a sofa (though back in Iowa, we usually call them couches) and she is very comfortable to ride; and B) Point her to a jump, and she pretty much does the rest, flying over it. Now part B) can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing – it depends on the situation. For the intents and purposes of IEA, it's pretty much a good thing (I think. I will be corrected if I'm wrong). The riders just have to remember to STEER!
There are two ways to ride Star: you can ride her, or you can RIDE her. If you ride her (small r), she'll pretty much take care of you, but she won't go out of her way to really use herself. She is, by nature, a bit – okay, QUITE – lazy, so will generally do the least amount of work necessary. This means that she will just kind of hack around in no semblance of a frame with a pokey walk, a jog-trot, and the occasional "tranter" instead of an actual canter. Tracking up? What's that? She'll like to get on her forehand and pretend that her front end isn't *really* attached to the back end. She'll look more like a random "school horse" than what she really is. She's lazy, lazy, lazy – until you point her at a jump. Then she'll use that neck and shoulder, truck along on her forehand - but she'll take care of you (but of course, being a mare who knows EXACTLY who she has on her back, she'll also let you know if you offend her), and take you right to and over the jump. She's a good jumper, but not particularly impressed by anything much under 3'. That's the first way to ride (small r) Star.
If you RIDE (capital R) Star, keeping your leg on her and asking her to flex at the poll and actually engage her hind end, you're much more likely to be told by her highness that you've offended her (What? A queen having to WORK?!?), but holy crap! she starts to look like the well-bred Morgan that she really is, resembling almost a mini-warmblood. She still likes to get on her forehand, but she'll start actually bending and tracking up (a little bit, anyway). When she comes up to a jump, she'll actually round over it a bit, rather than "Superman-ing" it. I have seen only two IEA riders come close to RIDING (capital R) Star – and both did well in their classes. The only other person I have seen RIDE (capital R) Star recently has been Jen, when I gave her a no-stirrups "lesson." It's pretty neat to see just how cute my mare can be.
Now the thing about RIDING Star (I'm tired of the "capital R" "little r") is that it's not particularly easy. She has a very round barrel and broad back, which make it difficult to really put your leg on and keep it. That, paired with her strong (heavy) front end and opinionated mare mind (backed up with several years of bad habits) means that convincing her to rock back and work off her hind end (especially when jumping) is sometimes, uhh, well, it just plain doesn't happen.
So I enlisted the help of Jen (my honorary big sister) to be my eyes on the ground and kick my butt (I also have a bit a leaning habit that I am trying to combat) a couple of weeks ago. It was of course, ungodly hot out, which made the whole experience even more fun. The main principles addressed were:
-Make Nicole work in all three seats, not just her [favorite] full-seat (amazingly enough, I re-remembered that two-point is MUCH easier with shorter stirrups!)
-Work to obtain PROMPT transitions with Star
-Get Star working off her hind end
Of course, all of this involved RIDING her. When it came to jumping, the emphasis was on not letting Star just canter along on her forehand and get over the jump in the easiest way possible. We worked on actually getting a nice, bouncy canter and coming in to the base of the jump to make her rock back and really use herself (again, having to really RIDE her). Overall, Star did pretty well – some of our jumps felt REALLY good. But there is always more work to be done. With that in mind, over the past couple weeks, Star and I have done the following:
-Leg means forward NOW, not five minutes from now, maybe. (Holy crap, turns out that horse really CAN work off her hind end)
-Bounces. Lots of bounces. Set at anywhere from 2'6" to 3'0". This was actually pretty fun; she felt as round as a rubber ball by the last jump.
-Walking jumps. This helps on two fronts: it encourages Star to have a much better walk with more impulsion (like a tiger getting ready to pounce, I think is how Linda Allen put it) AND to encourage her to use her hind end to jump. Can't jump from a walk without impulsion and not trip (which DID happen, and Star learned her lesson).
And as for me, it's the same laundry list as it always is, but the biggie right now is to not lean left. It's getting better, but it's definitely going to take a while. Years of bad habits and inherent weaknesses and all. One big goal is to develop a lovely auto release like Jen's. Even my actual crest release could be better: though Jen did compliment me on it once, I have to say that I actually disagreed with her on that – it was too high on the neck and too far forward. So that's definitely another thing.
On the COTH forums, someone posted a question about when a horse is considered "finished." My thought is that there is always something upon which can be improved, so a horse is never really "finished;" I feel that the work I've been doing with Star lately illustrates this point. She's a go-anywhere and do-anything kind of horse that some might consider to be finished, but to me, it is a lifelong process… it's not about the destination, it's about the journey.