Tune Up Day 4: Experiencing the maturity of horse
Today O left breakfast and came over with her head over the gate to be haltered. There was a confident calm to her so I saddled her and then found an extra-long rope and worked here out in the open field in certain areas where she had previously had some concern as to the pile of logs, the rabbits randomly jumping out, the birds fighting in the citrus trees, etc. Even though she showed some concern, by allowing her to stop, look, think and then feel okay about the situation, by about the second complete circle she was moving in a relaxed, focused manner. I asked for a few transitions and then changed direction. She appeared happy and seemed to be asking, “What’s next?” So I mounted her and off we went.
From the very first step in the saddle, there was a maturity and confidence in her movement that she initially offered without me having to “support her” to achieve it. We quickly reviewed transitions, accuracy of specific directions, riding imaginary shapes, and doing specific “tasks.” It kind of felt like everything I asked of her she quickly said, “Check, check, check…” So on to the next “stage” of learning.
People often ask “How long do should I focus on a task such as ____________,” and I try to explain that the horse will clearly tell you when they “got it” and when they don’t. Some of you may have experienced those moments where you feel like you just have to “think” something and your horse immediately does what you thought. Those are good examples of “aha” moments where your horse is telling you they are ready to move on in their learning.
More often than not it is human nature to want to achieve “more stuff” and therefor in adherently accept less quality from their horse because they are so focused on achieving the “end goal” that they wind up rushing the horse through the motions rather than seeking quality within each movement.
On the other hand, sometimes people can get overly analytical and can accidently dwell on a task or exercise to the point of driving their horse nuts. If you ask lightly, your horse responds confidently, immediately and quietly, it is a sign that you should move on.
I try to remind people rarely do we get 100% accuracy, so yes, there needs to be some flexibility in what we accept. I usually assess the level of mental try the horse has offered. For me, if the horse has offered mental try between 95-100%, I’m happy. BUT, that amount of effort from two different horses may look like VERY different in the physical outcome or performance. It may seem with a confident horse that we have achieved a lot of “movement,” whereas with a lesser confident horse we may have only achieved one specific task. I don’t care either way; my only goal is that the time a horse spends with me has a positive, supportive and respectful feel to it. Without that, there is no way the horse is going to want to offer participating in our next session together.
So back to O. Now that she clearly understood tracking straight, backwards, left and right, I then presented the concept of the ability to move one part of her body independently of another. When I first work with a horse many times it will feel like the horse moves a bit like a 2x4 board, meaning if you push one end of the board one way, the opposite end immediately follows. But for teaching a horse quality engagement of its hindquarters (yes, this is where we start to use those “big words,”) I have to be able to “break” the horse’s body into five independent sections: the head, the neck, the shoulder, the ribcage and the hindquarter. My goal is that I can direct and influence each of those regions in a horse. Correct self-carriage, lateral movements, roll backs, flying changes, shortening and lengthening of the stride, lateral movement, etc. all comes from being able to help the horse learn how to correctly engage and use his hindquarters. BUT horses due to various and multiple factors such as conformation tend to be heavy on the forehand, or drag their front end.
Many people who focus on “pretty riding” (i.e. things such as the horse’s headset) rather than the correct and accurate usage of its body, never learn how to ask their horse to correctly use his body, which may not be an issue until the “tasks” start requiring more accuracy within the horse.
Take for example the flying lead change, if you cannot have a quality and balanced canter or lope, shorten and lengthen the stride while maintaining a light and balanced horse and cannot counter canter (canter on the lead opposite from the direction you are riding,) the quality of your lead change will decrease. Can you still physically get horse to do the lead change? Yes. Will it improve with brainless repetition of an exercise? No. The lack of initial quality and balanced movement is why you see horses that “always” only change in the front end and then take a few strides to change behind, or they “race” through the change, or they lose all forward implusion through the change, or their body gets physically stiff and tight through the change, etc.
So especially with a “gumby doll” horse like O, whose body naturally can go in five different directions at once, I need her to learn to understand how to a.) Yield to the pressure of my leg, and b.) Learn that she can move one region of her body at a time. As I teach new more technical movements to a horse, I allow them to physically slow down which allows them to mentally “be present.” If you put it into people terms, and were “rushed” into learning, how clear would you be in your complete understanding of a new subject? The same goes for the horses. Plus, by literally slowing down to initial teach the horse something, I have more “time” to address each of her incorrect efforts, so that she can narrow down her options to reach the conclusion of what I want.
Nothing I offer the horse is random, and hopefully you can think back the past few days’ journal entries and how the training theories and focus help gently “build” a platform and foundation for introducing today’s new concept. This allows the physical aids I use to communicate with O to be my “tools,” rather than something else to “confuse” her with. Too many times people can get annoyed when thinking about “having to do” the basics with their horse, but without them, you have nothing. AND if someone feels like they “keep” having to review the basics, then something is not clear in the communication with their horse, because once the basics are clearly defined they should help your riding, not hinder it.
I typically ask a horse to move its shoulders first as this is the “easiest” body part to move. With O, she figured out what I wanted within a few tries. If you are presenting something and it feels like you constantly have to “re-introduce” a concept, something isn’t clear in your communication and you need to slow down and assess what specific aids you are using, how and when you ask your horse to do the task. YOU also need to assess your horse’s response to each of your aids. By doing both of these assessments, you’ll mostly likely be able to figure out where the “real” problem is, which if you address, then you’ll most likely be able to achieve the initial goal.
As with most people, horses too tend to be typically “more coordinated” on one side than the other. I’d say 50% of a horse’s crookedness is due to the horse and the other 50% is due to the rider. People are naturally crooked, discombobulated, slow to respond, unaware, etc. and yet when we sit on a horse we somehow think that all crookedness comes from the horse. WRONG. How can we take a crooked person, a crooked horse, put them together and expect them to move out “straight?”
As an exercise for yourself, take one day and assess your own body when not riding. As you make a turn while driving do you “lean into” the turn? Do you know what, where and how to sit equally on your seat bones? As you stand do you stand squarely on both feet, shift your weight, or “cock a foot”? When you lay down do you always sleep on your side? You get the idea. If the only time you think about your body is when you’re sitting in the saddle, then that is not enough time to become aware of what you are doing, unless you’re spending ten hours a day riding out.
It is not fair to ask your horse to track “straight” if you are offering a crooked feel from the start. If in general you are sitting crooked, your body will have to “compensate” in order to remain feeling balanced, causing an inaccurate usage of aids. So you may be able to “sneak by” in the basics if you’re crooked, but once you start asking for things like lateral movements in your horse, you might “suddenly” feel huge gaping holes in your communication/understanding with your horse.
Most frustration between horse and rider generally arise from a lack of awareness and clarity. Mentally, it takes a LOT to participate EVERY step of every ride for both the horse and rider. Previous posts such as “Raising the Bar,” Clear Communication, etc. all address these concepts.
So back to O, she quietly yielded her shoulders away from the aids on my right side. But when I applied my left leg, to ask her to yield to her right, I could feel her “bulge” and physically push against my leg by locking up her shoulder in resistance towards the pressure my leg was creating. This is where yesterday’s game of “hot and cold” comes becomes a tool, as O was pretty sure she couldn’t “relax” or soften into my aid, but instead that she had to push through it.
During our “trial and error” of my supporting her while she searched for the right “answer,” neither she nor I got defensive, emotional or flustered. I cannot emphasize the above statement enough. KEEP YOUR EMOTIONS OUT OF YOUR RIDING. It is the best gift you can offer your horse. 1.) Human emotions can change like a light switch, 2.) Our emotions can be distracting from offering clear quality, 3.) HUMANS lie, even if we don’t intentionally “mean to.” I’m not saying don’t have fun with your horse, but the less “gray” and emotional, and the more “black and white” and clear you can be towards your horse, the faster they can understand what you want. Even when happy with a result, I joke and tell students don’t celebrate the achievement until the end of the task at hand. Too many times people will literally quit a movement or task in the middle of it because they felt a good change in their horse, and although the human is happy, the horse is left “hanging in the middle” not fully understanding what it was there were supposed to do.
So O quickly realized she COULD yield her shoulder towards her right away from my left leg. So I then asked for a little more forward (this is where your sliding scale of energy within a gait applies) and to keep a rhythm while she yielded. Immediately she offered a soft response on both sides, and that was my cue to call it a day. I’d like to mention I don’t EVER work a horse by the clock. One day a ride may be 15 minutes and the next just over an hour. My assessment of the horse’s mental and emotional state will tell me “how much” the horse can handle. Again, people being greedy by nature sometimes can “blow” a great session by asking for the famous, “Just one more time,” scenario. Many accidents seem to happen in those scenarios too. So go with your gut instinct, if your horse feels good, and you feel good, call it a day!