Sunday, February 3, 2013

the darkest hour is just before dawn

Over the years, when working with young horses I've seen a lot of interesting things. Horses never cease to amaze me. They never cease to teach me new things. And they keep reminding me how little I know and how much more I need to work on my own self control. But that's a topic for another post :-)

There is one observation I've made quite often during the progression of turning a green (unridden) horse into a happy mount. Progress isn't linear. Some days I make a little headway, some days I can do three steps in one session and the horse is happy and relaxed. Other days, there is no progress and we both do well just to go over yesterday's lesson. Oh, and then there are those days when there is an obvious regression. That is when stuff I have gone over already, which the horse seemed OK with, suddenly isn't "there" any more. I have to be content with finding something from a much earlier lesson which I can reward the horse for doing well, so that we can finish on a good note.

Those days are frustrating. Most likely not totally pleasant for the horse, as he is evidently worried about every little thing and can't relax. But most definitely, they are frustrating for me as the horse's trainer and mentor. Firstly, there is the job of having to think of ways to not escalate any issues that emerge. Secondly, it's about looking for alternative ways to make the horse comfortable in what he is asked to do, and that calls for a fair bit of creativity on those days. Sometimes the regression isn't from the horse being spooked or upset. I've seen it happen in headstrong horses, who decided that today isn't the day to cooperate. I've also seen it as something that arises from outside circumstances, which meant that no matter how much I try, I can't get the horse's attention from the other exciting stuff out there.

Just as there can be no meaningful progress if the horse is scared, there can also be none if the horse has a different agenda or can't focus due to distractions. To get somewhere, the horse has to be OK in mind and body, with a willing attitude and me in the centre of his attention.

Well, some days it doesn't matter how good my intentions are. I just can't create that mindset. That being so, I really just like to do some basics and find a thing or two which I know the horse can do ok. Then I give praise and put them away. I will admit that I bitch and grizzle about it, because my inner perfectionist would like to see at least some progress EVERY training session. And so it was yesterday when we brought in the two geldings we currently have in work. It was (in my eyes) an abysmal session. They were flighty, scatterbrained, seemed to have forgotten most things and on top of it, seemed grumpy. I was grossly disappointed in what we achieved.

We all went and slept on it.

As so often in the past, today was a totally different matter. Both horses had a totally different attitude. Their facial expression, their posture indicated they were good to go. It was as though they had had a discussion about it overnight. Or rather, as though there were different horses in their skin. They looked keen, they were relaxed, they responded to tiny cues. The one time one of them was spooked (justified), he jumped and then stopped and settled immediately. We made huge progress. Both ended up going off the lunge, one of them for the first time. And did it well.

I could feel the different attitude and preparedness to work through the reins, and through the saddle.

Let me explain that.... Reins are sort of obvious, as one can feel if there is a give to a half halt or any other cue straight away. The quality of that little give is also important. There is just a different feel. I jokingly talk of butter sometimes. When things are perfect, it's like soft butter. (Accordingly, resistance feels like hard butter, or even frozen butter ;-) .)  There is also a different feel through the saddle. That includes whether the horse is relaxing the topline and seeking a bit of stretch. But it's more than that. When tense, it's not just the top neck and back muscles that are tense, but it also seems to be the whole skin. The saddle feels to be strapped to the back and it feels firm and unyielding and stuck. When relaxed in the right way, muscles and skin tone are different, allowing the saddle to feel a bit more loose. Not loose as in: loose girth, but loose as in: more movable, an organic part of the back and therefore a connection between me and the horse.

Honestly, it's a bit of a difficult thing to describe, and it took me some years to develop the sensitivity to feel it, and then some more time to come to realise just how important all this is. The next step is to try to create it in all my horses, all the time. That is not possible of course, but that's the goal.

Picture (by Yvonne Lehey): Castellano during one of last week's sessions. I asked for a stop. It's not too square, but his topline is soft, he's let out a big sigh and is lowering his head. That's the moment we reward, although of course, he is rewarding himself already.

The lesson learned for me here is that I should not be too harsh, but to accept that we all (horses included!) have 'off' days. This is no blemish on my record as a trainer nor on the horse's training diary. Rather, it is part of the overall progression, and it makes me appreciate the big progress days even more. Sometimes, the biggest problems occur just before the biggest steps forward. Sometimes, we just have to believe in ourselves, and keep working towards a goal. If the underlying principles are correct, then the goal will be reached, and often sooner than expected.

Out of the three horses we worked this morning, every one of them made me proud. To celebrate, I'm going to reward myself with going horse riding this afternoon :-)

No comments: