Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Arena work.. or not.

I am all for taking lessons with various people and keeping an open mind.  I think there's something to be learned from lots of disciplines.  A past jumping trainer of mine has an excellent sense of body awareness and getting me to put myself in the right place - actually, I'm way overdue for a lesson with her! - and there's a local dressage trainer who's been great about addressing whatever issues I've had, giving me something to work on, and sending me off for a few months.  They know where my goals lie and they're happy to work within that to help me achieve them.

I went into the lesson/clinic/thing on Sunday with the hope that it would be a similar experience.  I want to improve Fetti's walk.  I have a zillion trots, two canters - though whether I can choose between a big forwards canter and a prim and proper little one is totally irrelevant here! - and generally a pitiful little walk with no impulsion whatsoever and no motivation to improve it regardless of what I may do to ask it of her.  I've tried nagging with alternate heels.  I've tried pushing with my seat.  I've tried getting off and leading.  I can accept that she may never do a big flying walk downhill, and that walk has improved somewhat since I started her on Cosequin ASU, but goodness!  It wouldn't kill the pony to give me a better walk.  I know she's capable, because she'll do it from time to time, but I absolutely cannot get it on request.

We walked around the arena to warm up.  Fine.  I asked for a little trot.  Hissy fit and mild explosion - she wanted to bolt and buck and run and make it very clear that she did not want to do this.  I was not asking for a frame.  I was not asking for a bigger walk.  I just wanted a trot.  I yelled at her, held her, brought her back to a walk.  Trainer stated that she's mad because I won't let her go forwards.  Um.. okay?  I know this horse.  I'm not letting her go forwards because she wants to bolt and buck.  She won't buck when she's cantering, you say?  She's bucked me off when cantering before.   In hindsight, that's the only time she's bucked me off.

Unfortunately, while I read the pony-tude as meaning "I don't want to work in the arena right now, and I certainly don't want to do it before I finish my breakfast!", the trainer took this as showing a bigger problem.  Not only does Fetti not like arena work, but she's not moving off my leg.  She's resisting the bit!  There must be something in her past - maybe her most recent rides in the arena? - where she had bad arena experiences.

Here's the catch.  When Confetti and I head on the trail, we have an initial discussion where she says she doesn't want to go; then she gets over it, and after that, a verbal cue is often sufficient to ask for a trot.  Sometimes I'll ask with a light leg cue, and occasionally I'll get louder if I am convinced that I'm right in that she should be going faster/a gait up and I'm making a point to overrule her refusal. 

Actually, as I'm typing this out, I'm realizing I probably over-cue in the arena.. but I'm not sure if that's out of necessity, habit, or what.  Hm.
And her most recent real arena work?  That was in dressage lessons with an experienced college student who's likely to do lessons with her again this fall.  Pony was absolutely fine and has no problems with her.  She and I don't do well together in the arena asking for Real Work.  I won't deny that.

Trainer phrased it as me avoiding the problem, though.  I take her on the trail because I don't want to work her in the arena, or at least that was the implication.  We do trail because we LIKE trails.  I don't feel obligated to make my horse want to enjoy arena work when it's not something I particularly enjoy at this point.  Circles?  Meh.  Can we do it?  Yes.  We'll meander in the arena, I'll work in there when other folks are in there on occasion.  I don't feel like I can never go in the arena.  We're just happier out on the trail.  It was simultaneously frustrating and entertaining to have her trying to talk me into doing more arena work.  I know she's looking for more clients, but ugh!  I thought I made my goals pretty clear here... 

There is value in arena work.  Evenings where it's too late to go on the trail, or winter days where it's too muddy or whatever, or some summer days.. we've done some arena work, we'll keep doing more, and Fetti will get herself weekly dressage rides this fall.  Neither of us particularly desires to do a ton of it, and I'm OK with that.  There's a vast difference in gait quality and responsiveness between our arena work and our trail rides.  While our trails are still good and viable, I'd rather work her primarily on the trails and focus on those goals.  This winter, when that's not an option, we'll work in the arena and we'll do more finesse and who knows, maybe throw some flying changes at her if we've fixed my canter issues enough by then.

Back to the goals, though.  I wanted a better walk.  The only improvement on my walk she was willing to make was to ask her to go on the bit and to improve the rhythm.  Speed should come last, she said.  I'm not sure if she understands that I have no impulsion as well, but frankly by that point it didn't matter.  She thought Haflingers were gaited, so my confidence in her as a trainer was pretty well shattered.  It's not like there are no Haflingers in dressage, or that she had no warning of the breed or whatever.  I was just generally so unimpressed.

On a more positive note:  I had a very limited ride time on Tuesday, so we headed out just for the initial flat section.  The way our trails go, it's about a mile and a half of flat trails, then nearly all hill work but varying options from there on out.  We rode about 2.5 miles in total.  Average overall speed: 6.4mph.  We did a Big Trot nearly the whole time, pony broke a bit of a sweat.. that's a ride we can aim to repeat once a week or so.  I am very, very pleased.


  1. Rose and I just got serious about dressage lessons a few months ago and let me say that while I used to hate arena work now I really enjoy it.

    Rose was a lot like your mare, bracey and racey in the arena. We loved the trail and while she was responsive on the trail she became unbalanced in open areas. The first few weeks in the arena were rough, I thought I was going to come off every lesson and my instructor just kept telling me to take control. One day, maybe a bit embaressed by my naughty mare around all these lovely well behaved ponies, I lit into her. She went to buck and race and I pulled her head around so fast and smacked her shoulder hard with the crop. She stopped and behaved the rest of the lesson. Next lessons she tries again only to find the same response... and she's stopped trying most days. She still will test me somedays and I think a good thinking horse always will but I much prefer the working attitude.

    Maybe my rambling will help. I struggled for a long time to feel like I was getting where I wanted to go in my lessons and it took realizing my horse needed some basics and manners to change the way I rode her. I understand the fear of being bucked off at the canter, it's the only time I've been bucked off with major injury too. The important thing is that you get back on and that ultimately you gain control of that bit. She'll love you all the more for being the boss mare.

    1. Generally, the horse I get in the arena is a lazy one - a polite hunter trot, maybe a Western jog. I think the explosiveness at the beginning was a combination of three things: we don't usually ride in the arena by ourselves, she does not believe in working before breakfast and really wasn't even halfway done (unfortunate circumstances, nothing I could have done differently there), and she probably needed a good run first. In hindsight, I should have taken her over to the round pen and made her canter for ten minutes and THEN brought her back.. live and learn. That feeling that she wants to explode and bolt in the arena hasn't come up for over a year now, I think! So it caught me really off guard and I didn't deal with it the way I should have.

      Usual arena work has her well-behaved if lazy and spooky. I don't trust her in the arena the way I do on the trail. In the arena, she can spook and bolt off any direction if the deer appear out of the woods, the water pump kicks on and it's extra loud, whatever, I don't think she WILL but I know she MIGHT. On the trail, I know she'll go in a predictable direction: where-ever the trail goes, the pony goes. We skip the scary spots in the arena when riding by ourselves because I know they're mostly my problem, not hers, and I don't need to make it hers too.

      For the first nine months or so, I rode her almost exclusively in the arena. Fetti's a pretty well-trained horse, just opinionated and forwards. We've had good arena lessons even in the past year or two. I personally don't tend to have the focus to do lots of circles, so it feels both more fun and more productive to work on some of the stuff on trails.. leg yield, half halts, etc etc.

      I'm hoping that gives a little bit more context/makes a bit more sense?