I’ve been working hard on Freestyle riding these past few months and have set a goal of filming my Parelli Level 2 Freestyle audition on November 30th. Freestyle riding means riding with a loose rein, so that your hands are not making contact with the horse’s face, and using your body and energy to cause the horse to go where you want to go, at the speed and gait you want, and then stop nicely when you get there.
In Level 1, you start with “passenger lessons” so you can learn how to match your body movements to the horse’s. In a passenger lesson, you don’t steer or direct the horse in any way other than to ask him to move forward if he stops. If he looks left, you look left. If he bends his body into a C, you bend your body into a C in the same direction. I am lucky in that Rocky is a trusting and trustworthy horse, so I could do my passenger lessons on my own in the arena, without someone else to lead him around.
It’s kind of like learning to drive a car for the first time. You probably spent time driving around a parking lot, getting familiar with the pedals and the steering wheel and the radio buttons and the climate control and the instrument panel. Once those things started to become automatic, you took to the road, able to pay attention to things like stop signs and traffic, without having to look down to use your turn signal or check the speedometer.
When you enter Level 2, you have the confidence and the physical ability (and fitness!) to have good balance and a secure seat in the saddle. Now you start learning how to direct the horse as if you were his herd leader, not as if you were a predator with sharp claws and lots of growling and kicking and grunting. You learn how to bring your energy up to start the horse, and to let your energy out to stop him. You learn to use your focus to steer — first you look with your eyes, then if the horse doesn’t turn you point your belly button at the destination, and if he still doesn’t turn you apply light pressure with your outside leg, and if he still doesn’t turn, you use your carrot stick to drive his nose in the direction you want. By using the carrot stick to “push” the air near his nose to drive him to the right or left, you eventually break your habit of grabbing for the rein and pulling him around by the mouth.
For these past few months I have kept my commitment to “healthmanship” no matter how busy my workload, what type of social invitations I had to decline, or that it was dark or cold or hot or windy or late. I have the amazing privilege of a lighted, covered arena and living just below the snow line (most of the time), so weather is truly not a legitimate reason not to horse around. If my fingers are too cold to fumble with buckles and ropes, there’s always Liberty and undemanding time, right? Right.
It doesn’t seem like it would be difficult to keep this commitment, as horses are the thing I’ve always wanted most; but apparently I still had a lingering “I really want to do this so I’m not allowed to” mental tape holding me back. I’ve tossed that aside and I feel better than I have in a long time, physically and emotionally, and so far none of the humans in my life have dumped me for my increasingly one-track activity schedule.
I’ve been riding almost every day except when traveling for work, mixing it up with walking, trotting, halting, and backing up. I’ve even added in one or two laps of cantering in each direction.
I found that even with a carrot stick in my hand and the reins looped around the saddle horn, I still have a habit of grabbing for the rein and pulling on him. Luckily I’m down to one rein instead of two, but even so, I need to replace that pattern with a better one. Yesterday I started riding with two carrot sticks instead. Just keeping them on my shoulders and not crossing them or clacking them together behind my head takes enough of my attention that I’m finally able to forget that I have reins at all. Plus my confidence is soaring, not into cockiness but into relaxed acceptance, and so in the past month or so Rocky and I have tried a lot of new things.
We took a trail ride in which we ended up being ponied by Erin, because Rocky’s adrenaline came up and would not recede, and his gaits were so rough that I was glad to take it as a passenger lesson. The next day I felt like I’d been beaten with a baseball bat.
What we all learned on that ride was that Rocky gets right-brain when he is asked to follow someone, whether another horse or even just the human who is leading him. He feels blocked, gets afraid, and steps to the side so that he has a clear path ahead. It gets worse if you use the reins to hold him back, so we start out on the trail with me constantly bumping his nose right or left to keep it in line with the horse ahead of us, and the rider ahead of us using her savvy string like it’s a tail, swishing it back so that Rocky’s face runs into the string if he crowds.
We are now working on teaching Rocky that it’s safe to be relaxed and calm even when following another horse, or walking directly behind the human with a nice safe buffer zone in between (that’s why we have 12-foot ropes!). I’ve played with Rocky and River together on the ground, with and without halters and ropes, and that has helped. Erin’s apprentice Maddy has played with Rocky and Dave or Rocky and River about twice a week since the trail ride, working on relaxation and manners. And when Barbara comes up to take lessons, we get at least one practice session together, to play follow the leader and give the horses practice at leading and at following. Just this week we had our first ride around the ranch loop and made three circuits without incident.
In almost daily riding, mostly at the trot, I have developed strength, stamina, and balance just like Rocky has. We’ve been experimenting with different gaits on the ranch loop too, and yesterday took advantage of an opportunity to go sideways along the fence of one of the paddocks as all the horses inside gazed at us.
I have also learned to be more flexible about when to go Freestyle and when to take up the contact again. I am learning that contact doesn’t just apply to precision riding or to reinforcing a body cue; it also provides support when Rocky needs it. About three weeks ago, Rocky shied at a new pile of lumber during one of our ranch loops. After a beautiful swift glide to the left in which I went with him in total harmony, I tilted his nose toward it and we sat for a moment, allowing him to look at it. Then I focused on where I wanted to go and used my body to get him moving again. The second loop around, I kept firmly in my mind the expectation that he would walk by just fine, and when he started to curve his ribs and get arched with spook, I straightened him with legs and reins and kept looking where we were going. The third loop in that direction, he was even less worried about it, and on the fourth, he ignored it.
I used this pattern in the other direction too: the first time he saw the Lumber Pile of Death with his other eye, he got to look for a moment, and then he had to focus on where we were going. And the next time, we didn’t stop, and the next time, he barely even flicked an ear.
Not all that long ago, I didn’t have enough confidence and therefore not enough skill to handle this from the saddle. I would have dismounted and played Friendly Game on-line, treating the lumber pile like a threshold. This would have also resulted in Rocky not worrying about it, but it would have taken longer, maybe even multiple sessions over multiple days. It would have made the lumber pile a Thing, like the tarp used to be, or the creek. Now, my confidence enabled me to be the leader. My attitude was “I know you can do this, let’s go, no big deal” and he believed me, because I believed me.
Tonight I didn’t get outside until after dark, so we rode in the lighted arena and practiced riding with two carrot sticks at walk and trot. This was our second session so while there wasn’t a cookie every time he stopped on cue without my having to pick up a rein, there were cookies to reward extra effort. It is challenging to hold the sticks in neutral, one on each shoulder, and keep my eyes up and my lats down and chest up and open and my energy forward and my core engaged and my back not arched and my posting from my core not my stirrups and my heels down … because anything new is challenging, and both Rocky and I are willing to practice this new thing until it doesn’t feel awkward anymore. At that point I will go back to one carrot stick because for sure, by then, I won’t be in the habit of grabbing rein.
I dropped the sticks to do our canter laps and then took a dare: could we walk around the ranch loop on our way back to the barn, even though Rocky has night blindness and would have to trust me to guide him safely all the way around? There were patches of deep darkness and patches of lighter darkness where various porch lights reach us. There were shadows that loomed and reflections off of the horse trailer and parked cars. I talked to him the whole time in normal conversational tones, not in wheedling or even encouraging tones, because that just makes him more nervous: “She’s having to encourage me, there must be something to fear!” More like “I’ve got the reins, feel the contact, keep your body between my hands and my legs and just walk.” And he did.