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Building a team

Sun, 15th Mar, 2015 -- Kerry Mack

Kerry Mack riding Mayfield Pzazz ©Michelle TerlatoI have written before about making your horse a team player. You can train your horse so that he is more likely to want to do what you ask. Of course your horse would prefer to spend his day eating grass than being ridden, but when I ride I want my horses to want to do what I ask.

To achieve this you must reward him when he does it right. Pressure off. A scratch on the wither, stop and rest. You must set the lesson up so that it is easy for him to do the right thing, then look for a chance to reward him, repeat (5-7 times is optimal) and  shape the behaviour by slowly and progressively asking him to do it better.

Let me give you an example. I was helping a friend with her 6 year old. She has been training the elementary tests and is developing the simple changes, but was having difficulties making them clean and balanced. A clean simple change means canter, walk, canter. No trot steps either going down into walk or up into canter. Of course before you make a whole simple change you must establish the two parts. Walk to canter, canter to walk. The mare has a tendency to become heavy in the canter, relying on the reins for balance.

After the usual warm up, stretching out horse and rider, working on rider position and stability, we started with a lesson based around transitions. Up and down within the pace at trot, using circles at every marker along the long side to collect, but not slow down, and lengthening on the straight segment between the markers. First on the left rein, then a walk break when she started to do it well, improving the stability of the contact and stretching into the bridle even as she collected herself in the small circles where the leg insisted that she keep powering around he circle. Then the right rein. Then a walk break any time she really improved her balance.

Then the same exercise at canter. One long side with a small circle at every market and then medium canter along the long side with a small circle at the end. Every time she was asked to collect or slow down the rider stretched up and leaned a little back, sitting on the horses hind leg when she expected the horse to sit more on her hind leg. Walk break when she made an attempt, and then change the rein.

The mare was not really balancing herself well enough in the transitions so she was asked to work a little harder. Canter along the long side, think of the  transition to walk, but the rider had to feel for when she was just about going to walk and keep her cantering. The instruction was to send her forward into working canter just before she walked.

 This really helped her to balance much better. So a walk break, pressure off. Repeat on the other rein. 

Each time canter was asked, the rider tried to sit very still and just use the legs to give the aid to canter with a little bend, but a soft inside rein as the canter started. It took a few goes on each rein to get them clean. Each time there was a trot step the horse was corrected in a friendly way, back to walk and repeat. It is no problem to make a mistake. There is no rush in this work. Take time to set it up to get the correct response. A clean canter transition was rewarded by just cantering forward in a very uncomplicated way,  no pressure.

So then it was time to work on the canter to walk. She rode a 20 meter circle at A, and when she came to A she rode a 10 meter circle and on getting back to A she was asked to walk. Asked first by leaning back and sitting on the hind leg, warning her that a collected down transition was coming up. On the third repetition of this the mare balanced herself into walk, cleanly, just on the seat aid, before the rein was applied. In self carriage.

End of lesson.

The mare had anticipated what was going to be asked and offered it herself, with lightness and self carriage. This was very different from the heavy unbalanced attempt I first saw. I thought it was really exciting to see this young mare work out that she could be a team player, and reap the rewards. It looked like a light switching on in the horses mind. She was paying attention to the rider and was interested to do what the rider wanted, in order to get the pressure off, reward. There was a true connection between the mind of the rider and the mind of the horse. Harmony.

- Until next time, Kerry