I've been ticking over with Aero all week. He had his feet trimmed on Monday, so on Tuesday I put boots on his front feet (I only have two boots which fit him) and we did a 25-minute walk down the road. This ended up with him getting so excited about a scarecrow that he completely forgot about his tender and unbooted hind feet for at least five minutes, which didn't do him any good at all, so I resolved to stick to the arena for the next couple of days.
On Wednesday, I played with saddles. I dug out his Bates Isabell saddle and put it on him with nothing underneath - it was definitely tilting to the back.
I schooled for about ten minutes, just twenty metre circles in walk and trot, asking him to bend and hoping he would engage in a conversation down the rein. He is so much better than he was last Autumn, back then he just held the bit rigid in his mouth, kept his mouth slightly open the whole time, never chewed the bit, never softened - you never felt like there was a live being at the other end of the rein, and every time I took the bridle off the bit was still pretty dry. In the past, he used to salivate quite a bit when he was ridden, which indicates acceptance of the bit and relaxation in the mouth and jaw. Now I'm feeling the odd little softening of the jaw, you can see him chewing the bit while lunging and I can feel it when I ride him, but I had yet to feel the whole "conversation" thing going on, and while the bit is a little gooey afterwards, you certainly couldn't say he's salivating. I think before he really relaxes, he needs to be confident that
a) I'm not going to force his head down and
b) I'm not going to jerk him in the mouth if I lose balance and fall behind the motion.
I had put a clean numnah under the saddle that day, which enabled me to see how the saddle and riser pad were sitting. I was delighted to see from the dirt marks afterwards that there was even pressure along both sides of his spine, with no gaps, which would imply that the saddle is "bridging" - sitting on two high points and missing out the piece underneath, which puts too much weight on the high points.
I had been reading up on the Micklem multibridle and thought that it might suit me, my horses and what I intend to do with them. Both Flurry and Aero like to rub their nose after being ridden, which may be because their bridles are pressing on sensitive areas. The Micklem is supposed to prevent this by being designed to avoid crossing over any points where nerves emerge from inside the skull, and also routing the noseband away from the molars, thus avoiding pressure on the inside of the cheeks where the upper teeth protrude over the lower teeth. Ok, I thought, this sounds good.... but you can lunge with it, use it as a headcoller and turn it into a bitless bridle - sounds even better, the last two being very appealing for trekking!
So what's another €150 on the credit card? I ordered one on-line on Wednesday, and it arrived on Thursday. I hauled Aero in from the field, where he had been under the impression he was having a day off - poor boy! At least he didn't have to work very hard - I spent a good half hour faffing about with the bridle, adjusting straps here and there and trying to get it to fit right. Having fitted the noseband as per the instructions, the bit ended up too high in his mouth. Maybe I could stretch the bit straps which connect the bit to the nosepiece... nope, it'll take them months to soften out. I dropped the noseband a hole on each side and the bit seemed a bit better, but I wasn't convinced about it and neither was Aero. I took him out for a little lunge and then sat up on him for two minutes afterwards, but I was getting that "dead" feel down the reins again.
On Friday I played around with it some more, dropped the noseband a couple of holes on each side so the bit looked more normal. He felt ok to ride - I'm definitely getting more used to his paces and I'm also getting better at forgetting about "poor depressed Aero" and thinking of him as any other horse who needs work. We did lots of circles, figures of eight and serpentines, just trying to get him to bend and soften a bit more through the body. Then I tried some leg-yielding, but he lost all forward motion when I asked for it in walk, so we did some in trot, too, and that felt better, at least he didn't feel "stuck!" We did a couple of little canters then, which helped loosen out his trot a little, and we finished up with me feeling quite happy. Looking at the bridle afterwards, though, I came to the conclusion that it was fitted too far down his nose, and was possibly pressing on the ends of the nasal bones. Hmm.
Some internet research followed, and not surprisingly, it turns out I'm not the first person to have trouble fitting a Micklem. One person who had exactly the same issues as me used two modified flash nosebands as bit straps, another person used spur straps. Spur straps! What a good idea! First thing on Saturday morning I unearthed a pair of spurs, removed their straps and got to work fitting the bridle again. I was much happier with the fit of this time, the noseband was nice and high up his nose and the bit was lying nicely with just one wrinkle in the corner of his mouth. The only problem now is that the strap which goes under his jowl is on the last hole and tight!
I tried him on the road again, but as he was still a bit tender, we came back to the arena and did a lot of work in walk. I was asking for medium walk... then free walk... then medium again. It's something I need to work on, because I always have trouble picking up the contact after free walk. No matter what horse I'm on, he always comes above the bit as soon as I pick up the reins. I can't say it improved in this session, but at least I worked on it! In trot, we worked on just how much of a half-halt he needs. This was interesting, if I half-halted like I do in Flurry, we got a transition, so I toned my aids down a lot, and we got a few decent half-halts. He was bending nicely on circles, yielding to the inside rein/inside leg, so much so that I was able to give and retake the inside rein and he'd maintain the inside bend. We finished with more leg-yielding, in trot first, then in walk as part of our cooling off.
The contact felt good for the whole session - I was finally feeling like there was a conversation going on between us. Was I imagining it, or were there occasional gobs of saliva flying past me through the air from time to time? I peered down at the bit a few times, but there was no sign of "white lipstick" or even "green lipstick" from my vantage point on his back. When I dismounted, though, there it was - hanging in a couple of bubbles from his lips! Yippee!
The things us Horse-People get excited about!!