Gentle, noble, strong, generous, joyful and forgiving, horses are sanctuary.
Today we had a happy time doing what we do. Circling on long lines is never dull. I stand and walk and “trot” a little along-side Encore! I watch her moves and her attitude from alongside rather than topside and often get a better perspective on how to proceed. The view is fascinating and leads to remarkable insights about Encore! Today I celebrate her talking tail.
I love the position of Encore’s tail. I couldn’t see this if I were riding her. Yes, I could see it if I had mirrors, as many dressage riders do, but I don’t. I don’t even have a round pen, so long lining gives me what I most enjoy, a ground eye view of Encore! in motion. Best of all I have full view of her tail. It is slightly lifted and relaxed. It is bell weather for me. I look at her tail as she trots and canters around me and it is quiet. I often tell her that when every part of her, in all her exercises, becomes like her tail, we will have achieved our goal. Her tail, which she used to clamp, is a hint of how far she has come and how far we can go. I work from her rear end to her head. Encore’s tail whispers, “I can do this with grace and joy today even if I might not want to.” In other words, Encore! telegraphs with her tail that she is willing to go along with the program and possibly even master the art of dressage.
The rest of Encore’s body in motion is often a different story. Fortunately, we’re not in any hurry. I will look for grace and relaxation to move through her body to her head as we proceed. The canter, which is alternately calm and chaotic, still has moments of playful uprising and uneven tempo. Her rhythm is impeccable. Her tempo is like a halting piano player trying to figure out the chords as he or she stumbles along not sure of the melody. When it all comes together, like her steady tail, we’ll be as pretty as a ballet dancer that has mastered her moves and put them gracefully in sync with the music. Until then we will practice, practice, and practice until we get to our Carnegie Hall.
I have the magic combination now to keep Encore! settled and prepared for the long and solid path of dressage. We have often, if not always, struggled with focus. Once again, with long lines consistently used for the first half an hour to forty-five minutes of our time together, the ride outside has become the safe and sane experience we both enjoy and deserve. Encore! is a Thoroughbred. She is bred and born to run. With long lines I can take all that power to run long and flat and shape it into strong and floating.We do miles of transitions from walk to trot to trot to canter to canter to walk to canter to halt and everything in between on a twenty meter circle with long lines. We throw in a figure like a serpentine or figure eight at the end of the long lining and Encore! is relaxed, happy and listening. I hope to master all the figures and movements all the way to Gran Prix on long lines as well as under saddle.
Once Encore! has completed her “warm up” we do some mounted walk, trot, and canter transitions together on the circle and then some leg yielding and shoulder- in on an almost flat rectangle. We make do with what we have here at home then travel cross-country to our neighbor’s arena for more fun with transitions. The twenty minutes of cross country is full of restrained, even relaxed, exuberance. After two hours of adventure inside and outside the arena, Encore! returns to her catch pen and paddock to enjoy a happy roll in the sandy soil. She bounces up as if she hadn’t done a thing all day and enthusiastically devours her hay.
I’ve never in all my horse experience ridden a horse with so much enthusiasm for everything. My farrier tells me I’ve done a great job. I look at him and hope he’s telling the truth. He works with lots of Thoroughbreds. To him Encore! is super girl. I can’t help but be inclined to agree. Perhaps it’s the exclamation point I add to the end of her name that reminds me she’s special. Regardless, it’s a joy to think of tomorrow with a ride on the wild side on Encore!
Today is a breakthrough day. After day seventeen of ninety days of exclusive leg-yield spiral circles, Encore! and I are ready to ride the wild with no lunging or long lines to prepare for our adventure. I gave up the lunging a few weeks ago and today I passed on long lines and went straight to getting up in the saddle. Today Encore! said, in her non- verbal way, “Okay, I’m ready . I can do this!”
In the past I have allowed myself to leave off lunging and long lining young horses after a short time, because they understood what was necessary for us to ride the wild outdoors, bushwhacking through open country, trusting that we could handle whatever showed up. Encore! with her high spirits, power and opinions required a longer period of lunging and long-lining to insure our safety.
Imagine a filly that after a three hour ride, that included a half hour of long-lining, transitioning through walk, trot, canter and halt, in both directions, and the half hour of leg-yield spiraling circles thrown in, with a hour and a half bushwhacking adventure through hills and open country comes home and, upon release into her paddock, runs with high spirits and jumps with all four feet off the ground before she rolls in the sand. This is Encore!
Certainly, anyone can appreciate my satisfaction that today we get in the saddle and go! First we walk around the property five loops, going both ways, and then we randomly crisscross the open space. We ride to the gate and halt square. Encore! stands while I dismount and lead her over to push the button to open the gate. We stand quietly together while the creaking gate opens wide enough for us to pass through safely. I lead Encore! and bring her to the bottom of the sloping ground that stops at the paved private road. I ask her to be still while I step into the stirrup, pull myself up and settle into the saddle. There’s enough of a rise here that I can mount from the ground. Encore! knows the routine and stands still while I adjust my whip and gather my reins. We wait a minute then quietly walk off and cross the road.
We walk down to the fork in the road, cross the road again and walk with enthusiasm through our neighbor’s forty acres of wild chaparral. We wander on the flat through tall grass some sagebrush and a grove of oak trees. We get to the top of the property and turn to follow the fence line protecting the Hilliard Bruce vineyard from deer. A small grove of tall Eucalyptus trees and sagebrush perfume the air. Ahead two deer appear from nowhere. In their confusion they run into each other then run off in two directions then join up again and disappear into a thicket. Encore! is undisturbed. Hallelujah! We continue along the fence-line into “Sleepy Hollow” dodging tree branches. At this spot I always think of the legend of the headless horseman galloping through the night under a full moon.
Birds chatter and rabbits zig zag in panic. Encore! marches through the thicket as we begin our climb up the hill. As we round the bend and leave the thicket, the same two deer leap into view up ahead. A third dear runs in from the right and Encore! skips in surprise. I remind her that this is completely unacceptable with a quiet but fierce, “Never do that again so help me God!” and we continue on. Encore! has new respect and trust that I am in charge and that the only thing she needs to react to is me.
After a steep climb through brush, scrub manzanita and more tall grass, we arrive at our neighbor’s Jimmy and Paula’s farm. We stop at the top of the hill and look out on a 200 degree view of the Lompoc Valley. Today the sun breaks through broken gray clouds and I can see all the way to the ocean. There’s no wind. Vineyards, La Purisima Golf Course, Santa Rita Hills, Los Padres National Forest and the City of Lompoc make up the landscape. Life is good in the wild.
After a long pause on top, we continue to ride to Jimmy and Paula’s farm just below us. We walk through the barnyard filled with pigs and free-to-wander ducks, chickens and geese. Horses in small corrals and larger paddocks nicker. After a few hesitations, we head up a gentle slope to the arena for our half hour of leg yield spiraling circles. On our way, we ride over Paula’s trail course with a little wooden bridge and arrive at the gate to the arena. We open the big gate without having to dismount. Encore! gets the job done. We exit after a disciplined workout ready to ride the wild again to return home.
It’s a great feeling to know I can now pull Encore! out of her paddock, saddle up and ride safe and sound into the wild.
Seemingly domestic, a horse is a window into the wild.
Into our 10th day of spiraling leg yield circles Encore! is settling down to business. The light reins, the new bit and my improved balance are certainly helping us work together to establish rhythm and relaxation at the trot.
Starting our work late in the day is how it seems to work out most of the time. This is not a bad thing. The wind is often up for part of the ride which gives me confidence that we can ride any weather and not worry.
As I straighten the long lines, Encore! stands quietly while the wind whips her mane and tail. I glance up at the sky and see a rising moon while the sun prepares to set. Perfect. We’ll extend our after-a-workout-ride into the evening to enjoy the full moon. Years ago a cowboy I ran into while riding a dirt back road, in Ojai, under a full moon said, “the best way to settle a horse is to ride him at night.” Here I am years later looking up at a full moon and thinking, “Let’s ride a little longer tonight and put that suggestion into play. “
A warm up and refresher course on long lines goes a long way on keeping me safe in the saddle. I long-line ten minutes each direction doing transitions between walk, trot, canter and halt. After the warm up, I saddle Encore! and we ride around the property. Next we do the circle work suggested by Sandi on my small flatwork area carved out of the property’s gentle slope. Encore! is forward and willing. Each day I get stronger. I’ve added a few rounds of sitting trot which requires a whole other set of muscles used to balance myself as I ride this young, buoyant thoroughbred.
We finish our exercises. Encore! is still fresh, but controlled, and we strike out across the field of tall grass under the full moon rising. This is our happy place. Encore!’s walk is full of enthusiasm. The squeaking saddle and view of small purple wild flowers are two of the many joys of riding through an untamed landscape. I contemplate opening the gate and heading out across the neighborhood. I caution myself and say, “Next time.” Another month of solid leg yield circles, a stronger body and better balance will insure a safe moonlight ride adventure for both of us.