Before I owned Little Love, I used to work with her three to four times a week. I couldn't always choose what we did together, and neither could she, as our time together was often controlled by circumstance (what others were doing in the arena at that given time) or by her owner (what her needs were for the following day) or the weather (when she didn't get out for weeks on end, she was quite pent up).
Often I didn't want to ride her, yet I had to somehow exercise her, so longing was really my only option. To avoid having to force her head down with sidereins (or any other contraption), we created our own way of longing with the rope halter and a long rope. This was no traditional style of longing and involved a lot of running from my part as well. It all started when I watched a video by Karen Rohlf (Dressage Naturally). Watching her work on the longe with a rope halter to teach her horses straightness encouraged me to try something similar. However, to make matters a little easier (in my opinion) and to avoid using a lot of pressure, I turned to clicker training. So, long story short, I trained Little Love to walk, trot and canter on a circle with a straight body and all the while stretching down and round. Might sound a little strange but it actually worked! I think the biggest motivator for Little Love was not the clicker, but rather the fact that it felt good to track straight and stretch down. She was particularly good at it in the trot. This whole thing then evolved from stretching down to collecting, which lead to amazing canter departs from the walk and even some passage steps at the trot (don't ask me how it happened, I just passaged and then she did, too) At this point I didn't even use the clicker all the time, but rather would just suggest something (say by dropping my hip back for collection and picking up canter) or follow her lead, whatever it was.
So anyways, what I'm getting at is that I hadn't done that for months, but yesterday for some unknown reason this all popped into the my head and I felt the need to go into the arena and try it again. I realize now that it was probably Little Love who suggested it. I could have let her loose, but since she isn't that comfortable in the arena yet, I kept her on the longe. I had no clicker, but I always use a long stick in my hand to guide her around and indicate what I'm suggesting (like I lift it up in front of my face and take a step back to ask her towards me and then open my arms wide to change direction through the circle, it's our own code :-). Yesterday Little Love trotted for a while, stretching down. She was quite crooked and I used the stick to point at different parts of her body to help her align (like shoulder or haunches) She remembered this and I could tell she was making an effort to stay straight. When she achieved proper alignment, she stretched down long and low and it looked like it felt good.
Once we had warmed up for a while, changed direction and stopped and backed up twice I decided to throw in some collection. I dropped my hip in trot and immediately Little Love slowed down, shifted her weight to her haunces. I love the way she curls her neck, it is so beautiful and effortless even now when she is out of shape how she can achieve collection on her own (it is in fact much more beautiful than any man made collection) Okay, the halter is on her head, but I am literally doing nothing with the rope. I am hoping that she can someday do all this (and more) in liberty.
Working at liberty doesn't come easy to us. At the old barn Little Love was comfortable enough in the indoor arena to do all this at liberty (except when it was windy and the arena roof creaked), but she dared not do it in the outdoor. She would get fairly insecure and freaked out, by what, I'm not sure. Perhaps it is really the freedom of choice? Or perhaps our connection was never strong enough for her to feel safe? But when she had the halter and the rope, she always seemed comfortable. In fact, she felt so comfortable that she would demonstrate moves such as rearing (totally controlled up and then when she landed she would look at me with her ears forward as if to say "did you see that?"). Yesterday she did canter departs with controlled bucks and also several short spurts of passage. Wow. I guess the feet are okay? She was so animated that Becky's husband came outside to ask me if I was okay! Haha, he was pretty freaked out about Little Love's show, I don't think he had seen a horse do that before. I was so happy, it was great to see Little Love so alive. And she really knows exactly where she is at what time, not once did she pull on me or tighten the rope in any way.
But this all does really make me wonder about working her in liberty the same way... I'm not sure if with the halter I am sort of forcing her to participate (although if she shows no interest, I stop suggesting and usually let her loose) or is having something on her head just familiar to the point that it's a safety net? It's sort of like the same thing as when she is really scared outside and won't calm down until she gets into her stall. I know she prefers being out in the field, but the stall is all she knows and therefore it represents safety. Perhaps it's the same thing with the halter? I remember the first times she ran free with me in the arena (this was a long time ago) and it was almost like she had to break free from a psychological cage to be able to do that. It was liberating but scary at the same time. Hmmm, another thing to think about...
Anyways, on a completely different note (this is getting long...) I rode Col in the bitless bridle for the first time. I was supposed to do it already last week, but then something came up and it never panned out. I sometimes ride him when Becky is gone for a longer period of time, to do her a favor. She lets Little Love and me stay at her barn for just the cost of feed which is a pretty awesome deal, so the least I can do is help her with her horse. And, if in the process, I can get her started on "her path", even better :-) So, bitless it was. Col was awesome, as was expected. Becky was very worried beforehand that there would be no "breaks" (something she doesn't always have with the bit, apparently) but having ridden so many horse in the BB, I was sure it would be okay. And it was. In fact, he started relaxing and actually breathing actively, something I have never seen him do under saddle. His back was still stiff as a board, but half way he started stretching forward and I felt something happening under the saddle. This is a start. For someone who has obviously held his back tense for a very long time, it will take more than 30 minutes to let go of all that completely. The good news was that he wasn't drooling like he sometimes does with the bit (he drools buckets of clear, stretchy drool). Hopefully I get this opportunity again and Becky wants to try it herself, too!