Monday, November 26, 2012


I had to think fairly hard to come up with a title for this post. I'm still not sure if it's the right one. Thinking about it gave me a chance to reflect on what I want to say though.

We were working Castellano and Bailador again this morning. They have now both had about half a dozen sessions of groundwork. They have both been introduced to a pad and roller, then the saddle and a little bit of work on the lunge. We don't lunge much, but I find it is a really important part of preparing the young ones mentally. It also gives them loads of opportunity to become familiar with gear. They can show us their personality and how they react to various situations and give us opportunity to help them through stressful moments. For no matter how slow we progress, how much care we take, there is some stress involved. New things always cause stress, but if presented well, they also lead to learning. For the horse and for us.

The way I see it is that as a trainer, I'm acting also as sort of a mentor for the horse. I'm not just teaching him stuff. I am also responsible for his well-being and his progress. Therefore, I never say: we take 6 weeks to start, and in week 1 we do X, in week 2 Y and so on.... Sure, I have a set of exercises I favor, to achieve certain goals, the main one being that the horse is OK with me riding him and accepting my guidance at the end of it all. How I arrive there, which specific path I take, and how long it takes, that depends entirely on the horse.

My responsibility as a trainer/teacher/mentor is to find the right balance between two extremes: applying a healthy amount of stress to promote learning on the one hand, and giving enough peace and quiet time to let it sink in and give the horse the chance to relax on the other hand. My other responsibility is to present the right exercise at the right time to set the horse up to succeed. That isn't always easy. Something as simple as asking a horse to stand still at the wrong time can mean to set him up for stress and a failure, and other times it can be perfect to make him feel OK.

As so often when we work horses, we talk about new things we learn, what we observe in the horses we are working with and weird things we hear about from other people ;-) We are constantly bouncing ideas off each other and critically look at our own and each others work. Sometimes by observing, sometimes by looking at photos we take of each other. I have grown as a trainer since I've had the opportunity to work closely with Yvonne. In some ways we are very similar, in other ways very different. We help each other out, and while we both have some stronger areas, our goal is to become better in all aspects.

Anyway, coming back to the horses we were working this morning, and I have a perfect example to illustrate my point about setting up for success....

We were lunging Castellano. He only wore the saddle for about the third time. He was last worked briefly two days prior. He has not had much human contact in his early life, so he is still finding his feet mentally. He was a bit unsteady this morning, possibly not in the mood to work. He was fully focused on his handler, but he needed to move his feet because he was unsure of the situation. Yvonne recognised that he wasn't settled and allowed him to move on a little. Often enough, a couple of rounds of trot or gait are enough and the settle themselves. But he started to get into a stop/start pattern and was beginning to pop his head up every time she asked him to move forward into a trot. As a result, he was neither settling nor moving smoothly and he lost his bend while trying to evade to the outside with his nose. In addition, the stop/start was beginning to stress him and looked like it was becoming a pattern.

I suggested to take a whip to be more accurate with the forward cue. To walk him only and firstly look for the soft feel on the rope, the stepping under and bend of the neck. To be a little bit more pro-active when he wanted to stop, and to try and keep him in at an even speed. After only two rounds of walking, he looked a lot better. Started to relax, step under and bend. Then I suggested to look for a particularly soft moment (both relaxed topline AND release towards the inside with the nose), and then ask for the trot at that point in time. As always, she asked for the upward transition with only posture and a slight hand signal, and it was nice to see him do the transition smoothly and keeping his outline. A few steps, then she allowed him to stop and gave him a reward. She then walked him on again and looked for that same point to ask a couple more little trots, until shortly after, he did two perfect rounds on each side in lovely self-carriage while following the feel of the bend in the rope.

What a huge effect. Following such a small adjustment. It wasn't anything we don't normally do, but it still was a bit of an AHA! event, as it allowed me to realise the importance of it and to put the whole matter into words.

This is Castellano during a previous session. Nice bend and stepping under 
well. But not the ideal time to ask for an upward transition. Here I'm just asking 
him to keep walking and to relax. Photo by Yvonne Lehey.
This looks better. 
After today's session, he was able to maintain this throughout his walk trot 
transitions and while trotting. We should have a picture next time :-) . Photo 
by Yvonne Lehey.

Bailador is showing what I'm looking for. Moving nicely in gait, he has put a
bend in the rope. His inside hindleg is stepping under. He is in nice relaxed
 self carriage and focussed on me. I need to do next to nothing to maintain 
his outline, bend and speed. Photo by Yvonne Lehey.

Same feel again other side, and at the walk. Photo by Yvonne Lehey.

As trainers, we are responsible for the learning progress of our horses. Finding ways to help him learn by setting him up for success is one of the fun and challenging things we need to think about and become good at. Teaching horses is part science and part art, and it is the little challenges which make us grow as trainers and human beings. The learning therefore is a two-way street, one that never ends.

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