As I was visiting the Finesse class recently, I was asked a question that lead me to explain how I approach training my horses each day. Either I’m making progress or I’m fixing problems. You can’t do both at the same time… much as you’d like to think you can, it doesn’t work.
You get into trouble when you try to accomplish a task, but your horse is having emotional trouble. And when the horse is ready and willing you can miss the opportunity to make progress. I know with Allure that moment when he stopped arguing with me was amazing, but I found myself in a kind of fog… I didn’t have a plan for him when he was being good! I’d grown so used to every session being somewhat of a struggle that it kind of set a pattern. I’d have a plan of what I wanted to do, but within minutes that turned into something completely different because he’d try to do everything except what I wanted. It became more of tit for tat – I do this, you do that, then I do something to try to counter what you did and then you try to counter what I did. Sheesh. No wonder it’s taken years to get anywhere.
If you’ve been following my blog you’ll remember the day we made the breakthrough, the day I finally understood how to encourage Allure instead of arguing with him. And what progress we’ve made since then! Finally, I’m not working on fixing problems, I’m making progress with him… fast. Even being able to direct my assistants and it is truly amazing to see him cantering around the playground with them, sailing over logs, positive and relaxed.
With West Point, I’m really not making progress in terms of advancing our skills yet because I am fixing some pretty big problems. His biggest problems are around riding with contact and being worried about pressure, so they are my two main focuses. Throughout the ride I pepper it in… pick up the reins and ride with a “soft touch”, which is having connection with his mouth but not asking for anything back from him. We can walk, trot and canter like this, even make transitions but it’s more when I pick up the reins that he has his flashbacks. So, I do it a lot, desensitizing him. There’s much to fix in this area because he’s had years of negative experiences so that gives me the patience and understanding to take the time it takes for him. I would say that now he reacts only about forty percent of the time, and not nearly as severely.
Walter Zettl was here coaching us, and I rode in three lessons with Westy. It went great. In fact, on the third day he was going so well, all of a sudden there were no problems to fix so I was able to advance a little and did some canter-walk transitions. We could only do three, but it was progress! And today, at the end of our ride I picked up the contact and did a few counter bends on a serpentine as I crossed my lawn and they flowed without an ounce of resistance.
We so often talk about putting the relationship first and this is a powerful example of what that means. The moment your horse has trouble, take the time to address it and don’t push on through it or you’ll lose his trust and respect. If you pay attention to qualities like confidence, trust, motivation and willingness it brings a whole new quality to your results. Remember that Monopoly thing “Do not pass Go”? Well, that’s how I think of it. If I’m doing something with my horse and suddenly he gets bracey or resistant, emotional or worried, I immediately focus on solving that issue and return to the original task only when my horse is ready.
Fix your problems so you can make progress, and when you don’t have problems, remember to make progress!