Wow, what a day - I am absolutely ecstatic with Link's work today! So today was the day we picked up Sonny, mom's Thoroughbred. We'd decided to haul down Link as well, so as to do some trail riding in the Kananaskis after her scheduled lesson.
While she had her lesson, Link and I plodded about the arena for an hour at the walk and trot, working on relaxation, suppleness, work towards collection, and bending. He was absolutely fabulous and very soft! He was a little distracted at either end of the arena by the outside door and, at the opposite end, the gate (open to the great outdoors, lol), but overall did very well. He was also very responsive to my hands, legs, and my seat. Immediately after the lesson, the resident trainer took us on a tour of the local crown land.
I didn't bother to change saddles and so continued the two-hour ride in my english saddle as we took to the trails. First thing we crossed a pretty deep creek - up to the horses' bellies, and Link plodded right on through very carefully!! Needless to say, I was pretty impressed with him! Next was a stop at a gate, which caused Link to get a little ancy with me - he wanted to get out and go! Our guide then took us up a very steep and slippery slope (though he hadn't realised it was as slippery as it was until he started going up it) - him first then mom on Sonny following behind, then me on Link. Link was still pretty ancy, so I held him back a little. I wasn't sure how much I could trust his judgement on the footing (could I fully trust him to take the slope safely without any rating on my part and just turn his head loose?), so I asked him to wait back a bit. At least that way if he hit the trail running and he bolted up through the mud, he wouldn't wind up on Sonny's tail with nowhere to go and end up doing something reactive without thought. Asking him to wait though caused him to become even more psyched up, which in turn caused me to ask him to wait even longer - I wanted him to hit the trail (relatively) calmly. This backfired on me though when he was overwhelmed with the fear of being left behind and reared - high. Just as he reached tipping point where I thought he might come over backwards on top of me, I skidaddled off his back end - mostly involuntarily. Oh, and with a nice bump on my head where his head intimately met mine. I climbed out of the mud to watch my horse calmly pick his way up the slippery slope and yelled up behind him to the riders above and out of sight that Link was coming up on his own. Y'know Link, if I had known you were going to be so careful with the trail - only your second time out on trails ever in your entire life - I would have just let you go and wouldn't have bothered with trying to get you to relax and halt prior to climbing the hill. Thanks, buddy (please note the dripping sarcasm). Apparently he appeared at the top looking calm but looking around, as if wondering where his rider had gone to. She was still climbing the hill. I reached the top to see our guide trying to catch him. When I called out to him not to bother trying to catch Link, that I would do it from the ground, Link heard me and turned around immediately to walk right up to me. Ah, there you are! I pointedly reminded him of where I'd been with a baleful glare. Moments after catching my wind, I clambered back up and we continued. Link felt like a time-bomb waiting to go off for the next 5 minutes or so, but after that he relaxed so completely that he was not even the same horse! We trotted and cantered through meadows (on a loose rein), crossed creeks (I and Link first - he never once hesitated), bogged through several patches of deep mud (no hesitation and always clear-headed), and he munched happily away on the lush green grass throughout. Despite the rough start, I was absolutely wowed by Link. Not only did he handle the ground so much more fantastically than I had anticipated, but he quickly settled down into a wonderful and relaxing ride!! Eventually our guide left us to our own wanderings (mom and I) - Link didn't even flinch when his company left, and a few times Sonny and mom would jog ahead to catch up with our guide on his horse (earlier in the trip) and Link would be left, looking about as if to determine what Sonny was running from. He was so completely relaxed!!
So, on that note, I took away one pretty important lesson today:
Trust your horse. If you properly prepare a horse, they should be able to handle whatever you throw at them. Personally, I tend to underestimate my horses. Time and time again (lol). In this case, Link and my partnership is still a work-in-progress so I wasn't convinced yet that he was properly prepared for challenges such as the slippery hill (plus, he has a jaded history of disliking people we've had to work through - how much has he changed?). Also, as only his second lifetime trail ride, I wasn't sure how much trust I could place in his judgement and maneuvering. Turns out, I need to invest more trust in him than I had previously thought. He's a brilliant horse - he can obviously handle the footing, and I think today intimately proved that to me. Also, he will take care of me if I let him. We have a solid enough relationship now where he is not going to hurt me purposely. He can only trust me if I trust him. As the ride progressed, he became increasingly calmer with me. He was able to trust me and to relax (rather than psych himself up) when I asked him to slow a little at the beginning of something - he learned that I wasn't going to hold him back from being with the herd nor was I going to take away his head (which he'd desperately need to maneuver through some of the tricky ground we were encountering), hanging off his head in an effort to control him, but that I was simply setting him up proper for the obstacle ahead. As soon as he responded, I would fully give him his head so that he could negotiate the footing. So in this case, we essentially both built a stronger trust in each other. On that note though, I think Link and I would greatly benefit from a number more of these "trust building exercises"...a.k.a. trail rides. Lol.