As the winter goes along, we are reviewing all the basics. I firmly believe that this needs to be done over and over, and other professional instructors, some expounding on YouTube, others in writing, have offered firm support for this concept.
The principal is simple, the more one does something, the smoother and better one becomes at it. In the case of horse training, the basics are fundamental movements which, put together, allow for more complex, or difficult movements. In this case, we started doing just groundwork in December '19, reviewing all the exercises that give me the respect and obedience on which I build the rest of our relationship.
The most basic training, of course, is desensitizing to things, flapping bags, flapping coats, people, being touched all over, petted, groomed, &c. &c. That makes for a horse who will allow me (or my farrier) to pick up his feet to work on, and he has always said my horse is one of the easiest he has to work with. Never a problem. The more I desensitize him, of course, the less frequently he spooks or tries to avoid "things" like the jump stands at the side of the arena. Or the equipment by the side of the path. He still doesn't like it, but he trusts me and listens to me with a lot less fuss. Thus we have been reviewing all the exercises in desensitizing, to the point which, as I do them, he manages to look bored. This is good.
Of course, if one only desensitizes, then one gets a dull, lifeless horse, so, exercises that get him moving, and listening must be put into the balance. In Oakley's case, as he is so flighty, I lean more to desensitizing than getting his feet to move, but each horse is going to be different. The goal this past month has been to get him to be super-light and responsive to these exercises.
The first thing I found is that, because we haven't really done much groundwork, beyond the moves that tend to be done easily when catching him in the paddock, he was resistant and reluctant to do many of the exercises we haven't done in ages. Like asking him to step across in front of me from one side to the other by putting a finger lightly under his chin. This exercise is the foundation for lightly drawing on the halter to have him move, which is the foundation for an exercise to get him to stop moving around me, turn on his haunches, and change direction, which is the basis for asking him to move from one side to the other in general. I want to just lift the rope and have him respond to the cue, which he is doing. All of this leads to even lighter contact with the bit when under saddle. I'd say, after a few revision sessions, he's an exemplar of the goal we're trying to achieve.
For the past few weeks, weather permitting, I've been riding him at the walk, seeking for a super-light contact while we do changes of speed at the walk, from short, collected steps to longer elongated paces, shoulder-in, half-passes, and collected changes of pace, clean, square halts and re-starts, smooth, collected transitions from walk to a trot and back to a walk.
I am not able to use the outdoor sand ring because the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle has left it with a treacherous layer of uneven ice. But the 50-acre cornfield next door has no such problems. :-) The width is about 5 times the length of a dressage ring, so we get lots and lots of space to get the movement right, and the tell-tale tracks in the snow let me know exactly how he's tracking up and lifting his feet and whether his pace is sufficiently elongated or properly contracted, according to what I've asked. Almost as good as having a coach, but without having someone shiver in the icy wind. Surprisingly, even this work at the walk is just that: work. My hands aren't even cold in the thin gloves, because my fingers are continuously moving, communicating with him on the reins, releasing pressure when he does right, then taking it up again for a half-halt or another signal. He had a beard of ice from the chewing on the bit and by the time we got back to the barn, we were both damp and needed a rest.
I admit this review and revisiting of the simplest, most basic exercises is something that I've promised myself I'd do more frequently in the past, and again need to continue in the future. This time, I mean it. Really. Honest.
Of various trainers I've read or watched, all suggest this is, indeed necessary. Clinton Anderson refers to this as a daily tune-up review to begin every training session, Warwick Schiller imaginatively calls this his "Donkey Kong" principle, because he is likening training to a video game. In a video game, one begins with an obstacle which only gets conquered after several tries. Once that obstacle gets beaten, a second appears, which defeats one several times. Until one overcomes that second obstacle, one must repeatedly go back over the first to get to the second, so one becomes very good at going over that first obstacle. Once one has successfully beaten the second obstacle, a third obstacle appears. Each time one fails at the third obstacle, one must repeat the first two, again and again until the third is mastered, and so on as the game progresses. So that first obstacle, or exercise, gets done so often that it becomes second-nature, a quick blip, but still repeated every time to the end of the level. Of course, after having done these easy ones so often, the harder ones become easier to figure out the first or second time.
Similarly, every training step should be repeated every time one rides until it becomes so automatic that only the slightest signal will achieve the desired behaviour.
So far, so good. Next month, we begin to work more at the trot.