Sunday, March 27, 2011
Today Rhio & I were gifted a training session with Abby. Other than the despooking clinic we attended in April 2010, we have never had any formal instruction as a team. And it probably shows! I know I have acquired some bad habits as a rider, but I think mostly the way I ride works for my horses, and they do their jobs well. It's when I attempt to do something other than move down the trail in a (relatively) straight line that we begin to run into issues. Rhio and I have been working in the arena this winter, and it's become clear to me that he has problems disengaging or moving his front end freely, especially on the right. Even from the ground, I can't get him to yield his forequarters to me and move away from pressure. (A digression for my non-horsey readers: by pressure, I mean asking him to give ground to me when I use either body language, or a visual cue like shaking a rope or whip at him. He should step away from me when I ask him to. It is not a physical pressure, like pressing on him with my hand would be.) He also doesn't bend to the right, and can't hold himself on a circle to the right, but drops his right shoulder and "falls" into the circle. And, he has never picked up the right lead in the canter; even on the trail we always canter on the left lead. So, I know what our problem areas are, but I haven't been able to figure out how to improve them. We've essentially gone nowhere with the things I've tried. And just let me say, I am NOT a trainer and have zero experience in this department of improving my horse's use of his body.
So, Abby began by doing some ground work with Rhio. She immediately saw all the issues I'd described (whew! it's a relief to have someone else see the things I'm trying to describe as problems, and be able to pinpoint and refine them more than I am able to) and started asking Rhio to move his front end away from her. He didn't get it at first, but eventually Abby had him moving more freely and correctly. He also demonstrated his dislike of having people on his right side. He uses his head & neck to block you from being on his right, and will move to place you on his left where he is more comfortable. We speculated a lot about his early training (all I know is he had "90 days" on him at some point, and that the trainer was a man, and rode Western), and we are pretty sure he was never taught to be comfortable with people on his right side. (Another digression: by convention, we do most horse handling from the left side. One explanation I've heard for this is that when sword-carrying military types would use horses and had their swords on their left hip, they had to mount on the left to avoid poking their horse with the sword. At any rate, horses' brains are set up such that they need to learn everything twice - once on the left and once on the right. They do not extrapolate lessons learned on one side to the other side. So, it is very important to do everything from both sides of your horse, including leading, saddling, mounting, dismounting, and all the movements we ask our horses to do while being ridden.)
Rhio is a very smart and sensitive horse, and he learned well how to give a desired reaction to a certain stimulus but it seems he wasn't given the opportunity to learn to do the right thing with correct body movement. He's sort of in self-preservation mode. He really doesn't like pressure of any kind, and needs to be given the chance to understand what you're asking of him. If you let him think about it and understand, he really does want to comply. If you just keep putting pressure on him, he mentally shuts down and "freezes." If you continue with the pressure, he brings out his avoidance behaviors, which include bucking (under saddle) and rearing (if I'm working him in-hand). He wants to please, he just doesn't always know how and then he gets scared (though, as Abby pointed out, he pretends that he's not scared and acts all tough & confident, when really he's neither of those things!).
Abby observed that he is not using the right side of his body much at all, is very "locked up" on the right, and out of balance. He doesn't canter correctly to the right even when he's doing it on his own. As she says, he's afraid to use the right side of his body and he thinks he can't. I need to teach him that he can, and put him into situations where he has to move correctly and balance himself.
After the ground work, I mounted up to continue his lessons under saddle. This was great because now I am beginning to know what it feels like when he does it correctly (lifts his ribcage so that he can step under himself with his hind leg and lift the shoulder at the same time) and I have a few new tools to get him to do these things. He and I were both thinking a lot and I think he was a bit ahead of me at times! I was trying to coordinate all my aids plus pay attention to him so I could release pressure at the right moment to reward him for doing it right - whew! We definitely need to practice. But we did make some significant improvements, I think, and the most important of these was having Abby show us exactly what the problem was and teach us a few tools to correct it.
Stay tuned for further progress reports! I hope to have Abby back to help us again in the future.
Thanks, Abby, for a great session today - we both learned a lot. And a big thank you to Gesa for giving me this session with Abby - what a generous, thoughtful, and completely unexpected gift!