I finally found a couple of free evenings and finished a sword-holder and stirrup lance-bucket, so I can now strap my repro 1908 British Cavalry Sabre onto my repro 1912 UP saddle and re-introduced Oakley to the sport of tent-pegging.
Last time we did this was over 2 years ago, and he was... skittish. He got terribly upset at the sound of the sword drawn from the scabbard, he was nervous about the sight of a drawn sabre, tried to escape from the waving pennant on the lance, and did lovely side-passes when I tried to spear the ground-targets.
This time, he raised an eyebrow, and started -- the first time -- but very quickly calmed down and we had a fun afternoon stabbing duct-tape covered styrofoam squares scattered about the arena. during all this, he started a couple of times, but demonstrated that, while he may never be sanguine about new things, he is at least disciplined and trusting enough now to approach and not bolt in fear.
It's oftentimes hard to appreciate changes when they happen incrementally. As in all learning, at first, gains are visible and dramatic. The first month after I started working through Clinton Anderson's how-to-train-your-horse method, Oakley dramatically went from argumentative and pushy to obviously obedient and smoother within the space of a couple of weeks. It's been three years on, and this past year it has been difficult to see the changes on a daily basis. Particularly since we've finished all of that program and are now working through classical dressage steps laid out in books. Steps previously inaccessible to me because, while they are technically correct, like all written texts, they suffer from the deficiency that, without the proper basic training to instill certain fundamental knowledge, written instructions are open to misinterpretation. Moreover, if the horse has not been trained to understand certain queues, then trying to introduce new ones is confusing and frustrating for both the rider and the horse.
So to see progress, I need, now, to look further back in time, well beyond this past year, back to when I first tried to introduce something as simple as going over a trot pole, to recall those days when that simple act was akin to a death-struggle for supremacy ending with a rodeo and stitches (or at the very least a painful bruise). Last week our lesson included a half-dozen jumps -- nothing large, nothing over 50cm -- but jumps involving flowers, strung paper, boxes, x-rails, and small verticals, jumps that were built by the instructor as we worked in another area of the arena, so Oakley was constantly confronted by something new. He showed the same hesitant reluctance as always, but now, with my firm encouragement, he jumped over every obstacle. He no longer fights to avoid stepping forward, rearing, and leaping in the air, bucking and kicking. Nor does he over-jump as he used to. Nor yet does he take off upon landing trying to escape from the terrifying object. Now he lands and moves forward, but is still under control, since he always expects to do something immediately after -- a side-pass, a leg-yield, a pirouette, a change of pace.
In addition, my own riding skill has become much more co-ordinated and steady. Suddenly, it seems, all the disparate elements have come together into a coherent whole. As Oakley has ceased to fight at every obstacle, ceased to threaten to spook at every bush, I have been able to allow my seat and legs to develop proper position and connection, without fear of being tossed forward. Of course, when he did suddenly stop at a new jump a couple of weeks ago, because my seat has become so much firmer, my balance so much more stable, I wasn't tossed forward at all. What has happened to me, as Oakley has learned to be more coordinated and more collected and lighter and calmer and quieter and more reliable, is my own riding skills have become much more integrated and coordinated, my hands lighter, my legs quieter, my seat more secure, my torso balanced, my head and neck relaxed. As the fear of getting tossed subsided, not having been thrown or even threatened with being thrown in months, I was able to focus less on making sure Oakley behaved and more on correcting my own posture and aids. I have been able to review the five classical rein positions I first read about back in the 1970s and feel how to apply them correctly. Oakley, in turn, has become more supple and responsive. I have been able to re-read and refine the lessons from Centered Riding by Sally Swift and have begun to grasp the essence of much of the writings of classical riders; instructions and observations that only make sense when one has learned the basics in simple terms: hold this hand here, align the legs this way, ask the horse with this much pressure...
Whether we are doing flatwork, jumping, tent-pegging, or ranging across country doing dressage in the rough, on the trail up hill and down dale, we really are improving, even if it's no longer apparent from day to day. That's why it helps to look back to where we started, to see how far we've come.