My original intent some months ago was to share my efforts to develop a young, untrained horse, with a description of the problems I encountered, and the search for the correct solution for him. However, change is a constant in life (hmm) and with age and the wisdom gained from a certain maturity, we learn to embrace it and search for the positive. With that thought in mind, my posts now will be following the progress of “furthering the training, and perhaps retraining” our eleven year old equine partner, Lakitos.
Now that Lakitos has been with us in France for a couple of weeks, we have been able to observe his personality and get to know him better. His routine has changed quite a bit as he has 3 hours of turnout each morning, and works in an open covered arena. That is to say, an arena bordered on two sides with full walls (with small cracks between the boards) an open side with kickboards, and a side fully open to an outside arena . In
addition, the corners house a lot of pony club paraphernalia. Therefore, for him, it is a much less secure feeling than a fully enclosed indoor arena. Conscience of his insecurity regarding suddenly moving objects and unexpected sounds, we were curious to see how stressed he would be in this new environment.
Our first approach was lunging in the covered arena. At first he was against the bit trying to look around. He stiffened his neck and had hurried strides. However, after a period of time, he relaxed and stretched his neck a little, and developed a better rhythm in the trot. We continued this routine until he relaxed more quickly, adding a ground pole, and eventually two, to give him something to concentrate on. After first taking a couple of “looks”, he made the attempt, and finding nothing bad happened, he began to work over the poles with some confidence. In addition, we asked for transitions from trot to walk, and back to trot, and canter to trot and back, to make sure he was listening, in spite of his periodic tension.
Next, we began riding in this new environment. I should mention here the things I had been told about him when riding him in Germany. I was told first, he was not spooky and that his looking and trying to avoid things was worry and stress and not spooking. I thought about that for some time, trying to differentiate in my own mind. Secondly, I was told that his “idiosyncrasies” included crossing his jaw and pushing against the bit, stiffening his neck, and panic at approaching horses, all of which could result in a bolt, if the rider was not “awake”. During my first weeks of riding him, I encountered all of these issues. Much of my time getting to know him was spent learning how to react to these problems in accordance to what he knew and understood. I think that is an important point, because some of my instinctive and learned responses to those issues were different, and it is important with a horse like him to be consistent, and to make any changes slowly.
I was a little apprehensive myself during my first ride, not really knowing what to expect, aware that there were lots of objects and activity present, and that if he did get away from me there was a lot of open space . Happily, I can say the first ride was rather uneventful, though he was a bit stiff and tense, and his gaits were a bit too fast and strong, but he was listening to me and was controllable. Also, I was able to make the differentiation between “spookiness” and “stress avoidance”. With all sorts of objects stacked in the corners, jumps set up here and there and some horses hanging out under the overhang of the covered arena, he did not “spook” at any object at all (he did check, but then moved on normally), and only tensed when he heard the horses outside or saw movement. I have come to realize that he truly is not a spooky horse, but he really dislikes surprises. And when he has suffered a “surprise” he anticipates it reoccurring, therefore it is important for the rider to be aware, and act before he does. This is really valuable information, and has so much to do with understanding how to train.
After a couple of days riding him and trying to relax (him and me) and reassure him in his new workspace, we were able to begin developing some exercises aimed at building his suppleness, straightness, and condition. With some time schooling these exercises, he will become better balanced and with that, more confident, and I believe easier to ride. (Another note: In my last post I spoke about my own loss of balance. What I have learned from that experience is that muscle tone is key to balance on a horse. I have spent the last months working on getting myself back into good condition, and fortunately I feel I am riding normally again. As a result of my ability to follow the horse and influence him with my seat and legs (instead of heavy contact), he is more responsive in a positive way.)
Finally I will share what exercises we are working on at this pont, and why. Since he has had some training in the past, it is possible to ask him to work in ways I might not expect from a young horse. For example, we ask for a haunches-in, keeping his neck parallel to the wall, both at walk and trot. We also ask for shoulder-in, ten meter circles, and half-
pass. So why and how are we doing these exercises. Lakitos is a right handed horse. Going left on a turn or circle, he shifts to the right, and leans on his left shoulder. In the beginning, when my aids were not effective (mostly my seat and leg) it was a bit of a struggle to make a round circle or good turn to the left. His imbalance and his tension made turning left difficult and if the rider did not make it easy for him, he felt safer if he could quickly turn right and run (reminds me of a “Wiley” little character I used to ride some years ago). With respect to the rein contact, he stiffens his right side and throws his haunches right, falling into the left rein, thus becoming heavy on it. In other words, there is not suppleness or possibility of bending in this state. The haunches-in left, to shoulder-in, back to haunches in, helps develop the suppleness and makes the circle and turn more balanced easier for him. We include with him, a circle and half pass. Specifically, the exercise is as follows: haunches-in to shoulder-fore, circle, shoulder-in to half pass, and back to shoulder-in. When it does not go smoothly, we stay calm, and just begin again. Regardless of how knowledgeable and experienced we are, none of this can really go properly without someone to watch and correct. So much of what we feel is deceiving and a good coach, pictures and occasional video is indispensable.
Of course, Lakitos loses his balance throughout this work and much repetition is required. In addition, his need to constantly check his surroundings adds to the stiffness and balance issues. But, he is smart, and after a few days these exercises have become familiar to him, and when performing them, he concentrates and relaxes, forgetting for a few moments all the “dangers” surrounding him. For the rider, a real benefit is that this suppling work helps to loosen his back and make him more comfortable to sit and it is easier to feel any sign of tension or resistance coming and take preventative action Also, as he supples and balances through this work, the contact becomes much softer and it easier to apply the rein aids and he is more comfortable with the contact. He is less likely to cross and stiffen his jaw.
All of this is just the beginning, and I have given an overview of where things are at this moment, with some idea of how we expect things will develop. I hope to continue to post our progress together and provide some pictures and video to further demonstrate the what, why and how of our work.