Sometimes a horse’s honesty is hard to deal with, especially when the message is that my teaching ability stinks like 3-day-old fish. It’s easy to feel like a failure, or worse, blame the horse for a less-than stellar lesson.
That was yesterday, one fabulous lesson followed by two sour puckerish rides. It was tempting to feel frustrated or believe that I’m not as good a trainer as I’d like to think.
Breaking the Bad Habits You Taught
Changing programs is hard. Undoing old habits harder still when the habits are ones I taught or permitted.
What I learned in a recent three-day biomechanics class motivated me to revisit how I ask my horses to bend. No matter what you’re doing, on the ground or mounted, bending is a critical element of success.
After three days of precise ground work, I rode three horses Saturday, introducing the NEW right answer when starting any bend under saddle. We went back to the most basic of basics; walk, gentle arcing turns over a line of ground poles, walk, a little trot, and more gentle arcing turns all over the arena.
The Mysteries of Bending
The response I want is beginning the bend at the joint between the skull and first cervical vertebrae. If you think of a horse’s spine like a line of railroad cars, the place where the neck really bends establishes the position of the rails. Most horses move with the first two cars off track because the rails begin two or three vertebrae behind the poll.
My goal is getting the cars back on the track, from engine to caboose. We’re not gonna drag around two cars anymore. The problem is, my horses learned to compensate for uneven drag. Some more than others, depending on what it took to get them safe to ride when we started.
Reasons and Excuses are Not the Same
Most of my horses were special needs horses, with handicaps or man-made histories needing to heal or transform through relationship before we could move forward.
That’s my reason for allowing the wrong habit in the first place, but it’s no longer an acceptable excuse. All the horses are solid and reliable. It’s time to be correct, not just good enough.
The first day’s results were mixed, with Journey the star and Bo and Ace coming in with some good parts of the exercises and some not-so-good. Like most people, I expected the first ride to predict the second.
I was wrong.
Training Highs and Lows
Yesterday I started with Ace and had an amazing break through. He’s never picked up his right lead under saddle. He had an issue two years ago which we resolved on the ground, but I couldn’t get a right lead canter from the saddle.
After a delightful lesson of bending, forward trot, and revisiting gentle arcs over a line of ground poles, Ace was moving correctly, loosely, comfortably, and OFFERED right lead!
Once my euphoric delight ebbed, the temptation to feel guilty took it’s place. The right way to ask for any response from a horse is to make the right answer the easiest and most natural for the horse to give. Once we fixed Ace’s issue on the ground, I’d obviously not asked him for right lead in the way easiest for him.
Bask in What’s Right, Not What’s Wrong
Once the train track was straight, right lead wasn’t an issue. I set Ace up, kept out of his way, and there it was. I’m still thrilled about that. Guilt is seldom productive, even when deserved, so I kicked it to the curb and moved on.
Moments like those first few canter strides motivate me to get up after hitting the brick wall to try again. They’re bits of magic and moments of glory. Face it, successful horse training depends on sweat equity. The days that shine are gifts to accept with gratitude.
Journey and Bo were next to ride. I expected to build on the delightful session with Journey from Saturday. Instead, it took a purposeful effort to finish on a high note, where I could tell Journey I was sincerely proud of him and thank you.
But he was so good the last time! What happened?
Changing Habits Increases Confusion
That’s the thing about bad habits. One good experience doesn’t replace an old bad habit, it increases the probability of confusion. Journey and I went back to where we started the previous session and stayed there until he got the first basic thing right. If I’d pressed for more, neither of us would look forward to the next ride.
Bo rode (mostly) correctly for several years before my physical limitations muddied the water. He worked well to the right but couldn’t get the train track straight on the left. Worse, I couldn’t tell if the reason I couldn’t feel him under my inside hip was his old bad habit or mine.
Give Your Horse the Benefit of Your Doubt
When your horse doesn’t give you the response you want, ask yourself, was he unable or unwilling? If you’re leaning toward unwilling, ask more questions. The worst possible action you can take is punishing or trying to correct honest effort.
I’m not sure if Bo is unable or unwilling. If I’m the problem or even a complication, he’s unable. My job is to offer whatever it takes to make him able to give me a yes.
The soul of relationship with horses is faithfulness and putting the horse’s needs before your own. If you want your horse to trust you, be trustworthy. Never ask for something he isn’t able to give.
Teach. Encourage. Make able. When a ride feels more like puckery lemons than champagne, transform it into something sweet. Set up your horse to win so you’ll both look forward to the next ride.
I can’t wait for the next ride!
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