Until fairly recently, I used to leave it until later in a training session to introduce new concepts, or progress further with established ones. On reflection I’m not totally sure why, but I think it is the outcome of training systems both within equestrianism and in general education that emphasise the accumulation and revision of prior learning as a precursor to adding new. In practice this meant that the first twenty to thirty minutes of a training session went from ground warm up – ridden warm up – run through what we did last time – run through something I ‘would like to work on or I think I should be working on’ and that we both have some grasp of from prior lessons or practice. It was often at this point that my horse started to offer something which would illuminate a possible next step or feel, which I would typically get into and take up to another half hour to explore. During the session I would add many wee breaks, scratches, rubs, praise and food rewards as positive reinforcement for the horse, but long sessions like this could get pretty intense for both of us, and it wasn’t always easy to finish the session with us both displaying a positive, sunny demeanour. In fact it would probably be 50:50 we even liked each other.
This way of doing things led to me as the human needing to look for little ‘get out of jail free’ justifications – learning is change – change is not always comfortable etc, and for my lovely horse to a level of background tension that was a barrier to his learning.
There wasn’t a specific event or ‘thing’ that made me change, I just wasn’t happy with the status quo and I wanted to find a different way of doing things and establish a level of agreement with my horse. Over a few years I studied and experimented, and now I have seven useful concepts that help me make training or even just handling and being around my horses generally work better:
1) Useful concept 1: Reward a great attitude. When I stopped thinking of training sessions with my horses as work, and started to think about them as exploration, my focus started to shift more towards prioritising the mindset of the horse, both in my own practice and in coaching. How could I set up learning experiences that established and protected their balance, calmness, engagement and motivation? What did I need to BE like when I was with them? How should I aim to present myself? This meant all the time I was with them, even during the majority of routine daily handling. Horses of course only like it when your inside matches your outside, so it isn’t acting or ‘faking it to make it’. If you were being asked to do activities yourself that you had little knowledge of, some extreme sports for instance, what kind of personal characteristics in your guide would give you confidence? Being reliable, relaxed but attentive, expansive and encouraging can all be conveyed by our bodies and speech (plus random noises) in a way that horses can intimately ‘get’.
2) Useful concept 2: Observe – Acknowledge – Blend – Influence. I have several clients (you know who you are lovelies), who try so hard to get ‘it’ right that it causes them to mentally or physically lock up in various different ways. To help them I set up a simple framework based on a big shape with several long-ish sides, you could use the sides of an arena or even between objects out hacking or on the trail, or you could set a timer for a minute for each task. If this sounds like it might help you, give it a try, you can use it for ground work or ridden, but for now I’ll describe it as if you are riding.
On the first side just ride and observe what is happening in your body and as far as you can feel in your horse’s body. On the second side and only the second side, think and make a small number of deliberate changes, just two or three at the most, one if you really want to get into deep practice. On the third side ride ‘mindfully’ ie without thinking or changing anything else, then back to side one to observe and evaluate whether the changes you made have had any influence on the horse or on you.
3) Useful concept 3: The Tunnel Concept. I borrowed this idea from Kelly Starrett https://www.mobilitywod.com/the-supple-leopard/, who may have also borrowed it as I’m sure it’s not new to humans. It comes down to starting a movement in the best position possible. For instance when you move from halt to walk either ridden or on the ground, what is your body position before you start, and how much influence do you have of the horse’s first step? How many steps does it take you to adjust your posture to gain influence? For years I was a third step kind of person, I sort of might have had influence by then but I’d left the first two steps for the horse to sort out. All sorts of things could have gone on by then! I try to apply this to every new movement – it’s not very respectful of the horse’s fragile mindset to start in a ‘sort of ready’ place yourself, and they respond really well when you give them a clear idea of what you will be doing right from the start. Plan and be ready.
4) Useful concept 4: How much is enough? I aim to ride any movement no more than three or four times in series nowadays, if we don’t understand each other by then and the communication is smoother it’s my responsibility to go back to the drawing board and work out how to break it down so I can present it more clearly. I found an old DVD of a natural horsemanship assessment I was doing back in the day. I repeated one liberty task no less than sixteen times and it was still mediocre, the horse was in a bad posture and we were obviously stuck in a loop. I loved my practice log then – notched up thousands of hours doing things not very well.
5) Useful concept 5: Get the new stuff in early! Once I’ve warmed myself and my horse up these days, I want to introduce new ideas to him as quickly as I can. I always start with something that is an obvious next step from a well established movement. His mind is fresher, he offers to demonstrate movements, he takes on my ideas responsively and thoughtfully. The other day, he had to stop to clear his throat just after I had asked for a canter depart. I gave him a long rein in walk and a neck stroke while he had a cough, and about 30 seconds later he was better. He then picked himself up and gave me the canter depart without being asked again! He was in the middle of doing it and I am so glad I didn’t ask him a second time or I would probably have disturbed him. This concept also helps you – if you’re anxious about doing something get it in early before you build it up in your mind.
6) Useful concept 6: Get connected. Riding with an emphasis on blending and influence happens that bit more rapidly when my seat feels really connected with my horse. Not having a consistent connection reliably before has lead to the design of our in development product Sculptaseat, which puts me in a better place to blend with the horse’s body and easily comunicate. Many women riders are subtly disconnected from their saddles to protect themselves from intimate pain, or as a result of a little initial anxiety about riding. Give yourself time during warm up to feel whether your seat is in your metaphorical ‘basement’ or on the first floor. If disconnecting yourself is a persistent problem, get expert help from someone who is a specialist in seat training.
7) Useful concept 7: Revisit old haunts and have fun during and not just at the end of the session. Once I’ve warmed up and done some challenging new thing, I’ll sometimes quickly go back and see how it fits into the constellation of things the horse already knows, and explore what the new learning has done to everything else. Does it throw something else into a new light? Does new mobility or awareness make some other connections possible? What do I find in myself that I can see is helpful or not? Going over old ground now helps the horse find confidence in the session, and they often come out next time really motivated to do those new movements again, often straight away! This can be a very playful part of the practice, short bursts of activity, lots of changes, lots of praise and reinforcement for taking up the fun in everything. Getting the timing right and stopping to reward when the horse gives a tiny bit more than last time really helps!