This month I have a new mare in for training. Her name is Valentine, Val for short, and she's a 14 year old Holsteiner. When she arrived she was very green, having had only some laid back walk/trot rides under saddle. After tack fitting (bit, saddle, pads, and girth all needed to be changed from the equipment with which she arrived) her first training session with me was in the round pen as usual. That gave me a safe environment where I could assess her understanding of voice commands, as well as evaluate her gas, brakes, and steering under saddle.
I discovered that she was incredibly smart, and not particularly interested in praise. She had the mindset of, "In my fourteen years I've never needed to know what you're teaching me, why should I bother to learn it now?" With some carefully timed horse cookies and some work on my part to establish myself as NOT a doormat, she decided that maybe riding with me was worth taking seriously after all.
Because she's so intelligent it didn't take much to teach her the voice commands I use (walk on, trrrrrot, canTER, whoa, back) and she listens fairly well to weight shifts and breath cues now that she knows what they mean. She's not a particularly spooky or hot horse so she has made good progress in just these first two weeks. She is a bit out of shape so we've been gradually increasing her workload. By the end of the first week we had three gaits in the arena, and had gone for a hack out in the back forty with Rozie on another horse for moral support.
Val has also spent SIGNIFICANT time tied up after her rides. This was necessary for her to learn that it's much easier to just quietly eat from the hay net and have a drink of water from your bucket while tied, rather than have a temper tantrum insisting to go back to your paddock. The longer the tantrum, the longer she gets ignored. I mean no one touches her, no one talks to her, no one looks at her. Once she quits stomping around, kicking, pawing, and generally making a scene, then and only then does she get to go back to her paddock. Totally ignoring her is critical. She interprets any attention as good, so acknowledging her in any way when she's misbehaving reinforces the bad behavior.
She's smart, and doesn't really want to work very hard, so it only took a day or two for her to decide to cooperate and be polite when tied. I sure got some crusty looks from her during the process, and some impressive mud splatter-painting on the side of my trailer. It reminds me of the bumper sticker I've seen which says, "my window's aren't dirty, that's my dog's nose art".
This series of her face while wearing a cooler after a particularly hard workout cracks me up.
Today we worked in the arena a little, then we headed out to the back fields with the dogs to try for some more forward work with longer strides. All was well as we trotted out to the far end of the back forty. When we got to the southwest corner of the property we did some trotting and cantering in an arena-sized circle to help her realize she could have this nice impulsion while doing arena type exercises. Once she was a little fatigued, we continued on our loop of the field at the walk to cool out. She did fine until we turned north again at the fence line, and then for some reason known only to her she bolted while bucking. I was balanced as she took off, so thankfully I was able to shut that down right away. I did have a few words with Val to express that sort of thing is absolutely not acceptable (literally, I said to her that it wasn't acceptable), then we returned to the scene of the crime and practiced walking through that turn in a civilized manner. The dogs were wondering why we took so much time schooling that particular turn, but they waited politely for me to finish the lesson. Then all of us headed back to the barn and the rest of the ride was quite unremarkable.
Val is definitely a warmblood, in their typical way she wants me to push her with my leg and carry her with my hands, but I don't ride that way. I want her to take responsibility for her own balance and not rely on me to hold her in a frame, so we do lots of riding on a loose rein, working to firstly establish her rhythm.
This is the dressage pyramid I work from. I start at the bottom and work my way up the pyramid over the course of a horse's riding career, and also within each ride. When warming up a horse I begin with establishing a rhythm at each gait. With a horse as green as Val, often that's all we do in a session is practice each gait and try to get her to stay at the same pace. As her ride goes on, she starts to relax with the rhythm. While she's not there yet, eventually with enough rhythm and relaxation she'll begin to lengthen her topline and reach for the bit to establish a connection with my hands through the reins.
With a more advanced horse I'd begin each ride this same way, and as the horse offers steady connection, I'd ask for more "push" from the hind end to create impulsion. Then when the horse is really pushing with the hind end and lifting her back, we check to make sure the horse is straight through its spine, both laterally and longitudinally. Lastly, we spend a little time in collected work, which happens in two ways. One is with exercises that encourage the horse to flex the joints of the hind legs more, like lateral work or smaller circles. Doing these maneuvers the rider must sit a bit deeper, and lift her chest. This shift in balance takes the straight, round frame of the horse and rocks it back, so the whole picture changes to lower the haunches and lift the front end, like an airplane taking off.
This will be the training progression for Val, but it's important to remember that every horse needs rhythm under saddle, and it's MUCH later in the horse's training that they do any collected work. You cannot get true collection without everything at the base of the pyramid, and if a person tries to cheat by tying the horse's head into a position that mimics a collected frame, you won't have the core muscling or hind end muscling required to be truly collected. This always results in injury and arthritic changes, particularly at the base of the neck, the lower back, and in the hocks. It makes sense to work the horse in a systematic dressage pyramid not only to keep them happy and be correct, but to keep them sound.
Here is a video from Val's fifth ride here. With just a couple additional rides she's already looking different, it is super fun to work with the smart horses!