By Betsy Kelleher
Hoping to improve Rocky’s gait and carriage through dressage training, I took lessons twice a week in March, working on the various parts of a dressage test. In addition to Rocky’s progress, each lesson revealed something about my own riding skills that needed work. We were seeing real improvement, but then he developed a swelling on his neck the first week of April. An abscess was finally lanced and drained and I hope to resume working on Rocky’s gaited dressage in June.
One element of a dressage test is to ride the diagonal on a loose rein, in a straight line from one corner of the arena to the opposite corner. Sounds simple enough, but when I first gave Rocky a loose rein, he acted lost! Instead of walking a straight line, he wandered left or right and my efforts to correct with leg pressure made things worse, perhaps because I tried too hard and used too much pressure and Rocky was trying to do what he thought I wanted. It was very frustrating for both of us!
Rocky has worked best with a constant close contact on the bit. Without that guidance, he apparently feels confused about what to do. Stronger leg pressure for impulsion seemed one solution, but I’m still working to find the right pressure for the right result. He is very responsive to a light touch of my leg and to subtle body and seat movement. I have to work to keep my shoulders straight and my body relaxed, and I must remember to breathe. Most important of all, I need to focus where I am going with eyes forward and up (not looking down). Rocky makes me work at it, because it all makes a difference!
I’ve ridden horses on the trail that took advantage of a loose rein by going faster or even bucking. Rocky is not a fast moving or strong forward moving horse. He is usually quite laid back and a bit cautious. I’ve wondered if he lacks confidence, but when trail riding, I am usually out front on him and he has no problem with that (unless we see a killer swimming pool cover blowing in the wind!). He is a kid at heart and loves to run and kick and play on the lunge line or in the field, but under saddle he usually becomes a careful, willing partner, sensitive to my cues and trying hard to please. I’m thinking that practicing with a loose rein might be a good thing for both Rocky and me. I’m sure it will help me develop patience!
Cynthia Medina, my instructor, saw our predicament and gave me a new way to “talk” to Rocky while riding on a loose rein. Yes, I’m working on body control and leg pressure, plus one more thing—a light touch with my pinky fingers! Holding the reins at the buckle, I position my hands with little fingers down, touching Rocky’s neck lightly at the withers. When Rocky starts to wander right, I give a slight pressure with my right pinky and right leg. The first time I did that, Rocky immediately turned left. It took many tries and deep breaths (to ease the frustration, you know) before I found just the right amount of leg and finger pressure to get the right response. I remember the moment well when Rocky got it! As he started to wander right, a light touch of my right pinky seemed to catch his attention and he straightened. I was ecstatic! I gave him lots of verbal praise and rubbed his neck. One big step forward, and lots more to go.
Perhaps Rocky needs contact to feel secure. He has even thrown his head up at times until I tighten the reins a little more. He hardly ever pulls on the bit, only when I get frustrated and get too strong with my hands. With light pressure on the reins, he tucks his head and does what I ask. I just need to be patient and light. Working on a loose rein is different and he isn’t sure yet how to handle it. Maybe he just depends that much on his rider’s guidance. Like humans, horses get used to things, and change is difficult.
Cindy says my touch tells Rocky that I’m still here. Even though the rein is loose and our usual main connection is gone, I’m still communicating in other ways. I can’t say we have a perfect understanding yet, but I have seen improvement. After being away from it for several weeks, I’ll probably have to start all over again when we resume our lessons, but I’m sure that Rocky will soon remember our pinkie talk.
Just as I look for ways to help Rocky find greater confidence, maturity, and courage, I would love to do that for myself as well. Funny, isn’t it—how our horses sometimes show us who we are and what we need? These lessons reveal my need to relax and think clearly instead of getting frustrated and pushing to make things happen. Nothing new, I’m afraid.
Just like Rocky, I find myself wanting reassurance. I want to be “good.” I want God’s guidance to be a constant closeness. I want to know He is with me and I am still His child. Perhaps I am learning as I grow older how much I really need His guidance each day to overcome my human weakness. Perhaps uncertainty is part of being human. But just as a young child needs closer supervision than an adult, shouldn’t a mature Christian trust God’s guidance with less constant attention? Shouldn’t I just know He is there and trust Him even when I don’t feel it? I have seen Him work miracles. Why should I have doubts after all He has done in my life?
I’m used to feeling God’s Presence through experiences of answered prayer, a special word of Scripture, a sermon’s message or that quiet voice that comes from His Spirit within. At times, our relationship has been a daily conversation. But as I get older, there are times when I feel a definite lack of communication. Sometimes it’s merely because I’ve been too busy to draw close to Him. Sometimes I worry that I’ve lost Him. And now I wonder if He is simply asking me to learn to work on a loose rein.
I’m sure that God is working to strengthen my faith. Didn’t I pray for that very thing not long ago? Even when I don’t feel a spiritual presence, it’s time to simply believe He is still with me, because He has promised it. Hebrews 11:1 tells me, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Believing in His Word is the basis of my faith. It’s time to focus on going forward, with eyes looking up, not downward, trusting that He will provide guidance when the need comes. It’s time to look beyond my own human inadequacy with a mature faith in His unconditional love and unmerited grace.
(Originally published in the June 2010 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)