I'm practicing lunging today. For me, this is the hardest part of the Level 4 rider test; oddly, it's the part that doesn't actually involved riding the horse. That it's the hardest part is especially frustrating, because the riding part of the test will be the hardest pattern I've ever had to memorize and ride. It's been nine months since I did the Level 3 and I feel like I've got to get moving.
Tia is tacked up in the required gear: western saddle, snaffle bit bridle, halter over the bridle, with the reins gathered up by the halter's throatlatch, then run up through the gullet of the saddle and looped around the saddle horn. I've put splint boots on her front legs, then moved each one three times until they're in the right place and even with each other. I've fretted over the length of her reins, and tightened up the cinch. I've got my lunge rope attached to her halter, and the whip, with the free end wound around the handle, tucked up under my arm.
I place the mare on the edge of the circle, where she stays as I back away and unwind the line. I stand in the centre and think. Breathe. She's pointed to my left. My right hand takes the coil of rope and the whip, and in my left I hold the line. Ten feet away, the lunge line is snapped onto the side ring of her halter. Think. Breathe. My left hand holds the rein as it would if I were riding her. This is where I control her head. Just like in riding, this rein will ask her to steer and to stop. The whip in my right hand controls her hindquarters. Just last week I was told to think of it as my leg. In the saddle, my leg tells her to go, how fast to go, and where to go. I can push her ribcage, her hip. On the ground, a long low sweep moves her forward. Mounted, a squeeze of my leg moves her. If she doesn't listen, I will ask harder. If she still resists, she gets a good solid bump, either from my leg or from this whip.
The horse, the whip and the line form three sides of the triangle. I'm the point. If I step too far in front of her, I'm in her way and she'll either stop or turn to face me. I don't want that, because I only want her to stop when I ask her to. I have to be careful to not inadvertently give her the wrong cues. Horses are all about body language. I have to speak her language.
I did this wrong for years. Now I have to learn right.
Not cluck to cue her to walk. NO. Push it down. That's not the Equestrian Federation way. I have to do it their way now. "Walk on." Her ear twitches. "Walk on!" I say it more forcefully and swing the whip harder. She heads off on the circle, ambling along. I don't like saying "walk on." It feels so formal. It feels very dressage/hunter/jumper stable to me, not that there's anything wrong with that, but so out of place here in the little valley, with the tiny barn and western saddles. I get it though. Walk on is what it is. Cluck is trot. Kiss is lope. No confusion.
She could walk with more energy, so I give the whip another swing. That's better. The whip is my leg.
I cluck to her for a jog, and she takes a shambling step into it. She breaks back into a walk. I should have seen that before it happened. I should be watching to see when her head rises just a little, that she's fixing to walk. I cluck again and crack the whip behind her. She springs into a fast jog. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's not really what we want. I let her go around a few laps, always sending her forward, and not worrying about correcting her speed, but keeping her going. I know where she wants to break. I know I have to nudge her before she breaks out of that trot. Finally I give the lunge line a gentle tug. "Aaaand jog," I tell her, letting my voice dip down at the end. "Easy."
Of course she'll try to quit. When she does, I crack the whip. She really doesn't need to have that much encouragement. She launches back into a trot. I don't want to keep pulling on her face and confusing her. Go, stop. It was my own fault that I overdid that cue.
I have to learn feel.
On a horse's back, I've got it. I can feel when she's about to do something I don't want, and I can cue her to prevent it. This lunging frustrates me. I've never been good at it, but I was never really taught how to do it. I know I need to learn it, not just to pass my tests, but to use it as a teaching tool when I need it later on.
I'm a slow learner. I have to read it, see it, do it, over and over, visualize it, to get it right. I'm clumsy, slow to react, and extremely self conscious. But, there's only one way to get better at something. Keep doing it.
Tia wants to plod along at the end of the line, but I want a walk with more energy. I don't need to crack the whip or spank her with it. If I were riding her, I'd press her sides with my calves. The whip is my leg. A long low sweep, and she picks up the pace a little.
Later on I cue her to lope with a kiss sound. She powers along, never pulling on me, but just going a little too fast. What would I do in the saddle? I'd close my legs around her to let her know that she needs to keep moving, I'd sit deep in the saddle to slow her down, and I might lift the reins, not to pull on her face, but just so she knows to lower her head a little instead of run around like a maniac.
I squeeze the line with my right hand. No response. Tug, tug tug. She breaks into a trot again. I didn't cue her to keep moving from the back. Kiss. Tug the line. Crack the whip. Too much.
This goes on until I find that sweet spot, that perfect balance of Go, but not Too Much. I'm lucky to be working with a horse as responsive and well trained as Tia. She is a joy to ride and the best horse I've ever lunged. My Phoenix was lunge trained, but he's totally dicking with me. He acts like he knows nothing, tries to get away with everything, wants to go back to see his little Ladyfriend who's tied to the barn, wickering and squealing for him. He tried to buck a few weeks ago when I lunged him. I yanked on his head with the line, yelled at him, and cracked the whip at his butt. Sorry pal, you're working. It's behaviour like that that ends up with somebody on the ground, and that's not acceptable. The next time I worked him on the line, there was no bucking. He rolled his eyes and swished his tail, leaning heavy on the line as he passed in the little mare's direction, but he didn't buck. I know he can do this. His previous owners lunged him regularly. I prefer to just ride. But I know I have to learn his language, and he has to learn mine, and we'll get this.
I have to learn feel. Tia is different from Phoenix, but eventually, I'll feel him out too, and he'll be just as well behaved on the end of the lunge line as she is.
I could compare this education to any other aspect of my life. It's so tempting, being a stubborn human, to be impatient and want to do everything my way, but it's not like that. Most of life requires me to feel my way through. Life will teach me to not be timid, or to over-react to compensate. Life will teach me to go by feel.
edit- this was actually based on a lesson from earlier this week, and what I didn't include was my awesome instructor, my friend Susan, standing nearby and coaching me through this whole process. I needed a lot of correction, but I did make improvement over last week. She herself is doing some upgrading as well, so she gets the benefit of teaching up to the standard of her next coaching level. Next week I'll write about teachers and students.