At the last lesson I took with Gayle, about a month ago, she suggested that I longe Winston in side reins to help him understand, accept, and be comfortable with contact. If he pitches a fit when I am on him, I lose my steadiness no matter how much I try to remain consistent. If he is on the longe and wants to be done with working, nothing changes. The side reins patiently wait for him to come back without fighting, throwing the reins away or becoming tense.
Of course, then I found out how badly hurt my foot was and ended up in a walking boot. I didn't do anything with Winston for two or three weeks. It was probably two, but it felt like at least three. As I became able to tolerate walking short distances without collapsing like a marathon runner at the finish line, I thought about trying to longe Winston. I honestly wasn't convinced it would make a hill of beans difference. This is why I am an amateur and Gayle is a professional. I was so wrong. It is making a big difference.
Every horse is different and longing them is different too. I lunged Auke to get, and keep, his big Friesian body fit. When he was Winston's age he would pull on the longe line and I'd be water-skiing in the sand across the arena to get him back. It wasn't much fun. Jackson was a good boy on the longe but I really only longed him when I was trying to evaluate whether he was off.
Winston has a lot to learn still about longeing but he is a gentleman so it's a pleasure. He never pulls, the line has a nice soft drape in it between my hand and his mouth. He's learning the voice cues quickly. I precede each request for a gait change with the word "and." This lets him know something is coming. I draw the words out with definite inflection. "aaannndd t-rot" or "aaanndd CAN-ter" or softly "aaand waaalk." The cue for halt is a simple raising of my arm that holds the line. When he is in the requested gait, I expect him to continue without any nagging or reminders from me until I request something different. This will carry over to when I am back in the saddle. He should keep doing whatever the request is until asked differently. I don't want to nag my horse and I don't think he likes it either.
The first time I longed him, he didn't have a clue. But by the time I finished (we only work 20 minutes or so, switching direction every 5 minutes), he was flicking his ear to me every time I said "aaannndd" -- waiting for the request. The next time I longed him, he was prompter with the transitions but tried to change gaits when he thought it was a good idea instead of waiting for me. When he fussed with the contact, I sent him forward.
It was fun. We made progress. I feel like I'm working with my horse again. By the time I get back on his back in four or five weeks, he should be consistent and relaxed with contact. That will make my job so much easier -- and we can, hopefully, pick up where we left off.
Oh, and remember how he got so skinny after our trip to Alisal? We started giving him a flake of alfalfa and as much grass hay as he could eat in addition to his supplement that contains flax seed. He put the weight right back on in nothing flat. When I was grooming him before longeing him the first time, I commented to Brett that Winston seemed taller. Brett agreed so we got the stick and measured. Yup. He grew -- from 16h to 16.1. He can stop now. That's just about perfect -- especially if his barrel fills out to give me more contact with my long legs. Tall horses are wonderful in the dressage court but they can be challenging on the trail, with low branches and narrow spaces. I like a horse between 15.3 and 16.1 -- tall enough that my legs don't dangle but a reasonable height to groom and take on the trail.