About two months ago, I started to notice that something was different in my training with Weto. At first I didn’t know what it was, only that I stopped every training session with a grin on my face. Then one day on the way home a thought came into my head: He has decided to work with you.
Weto has always been a cooperative horse with a good ability to focus. In contrast to Nazir, who can be willing and interested the one day and in no state of mind for work the next, training has been steadily moving forward and there were none of the big setbacks that I experience with Nazir. This was different, however. In every training he was giving his very best now. He was extremely focused, listened to the slightest aids, and found a deeper relaxation during the exercises at the same time. We made faster progress. Whenever I appeared on his pasture, his head went up and he came to me.
For a couple of days, I thought about our last weeks of training and what might have inspired this new openness. Here are some of the things I did (or didn’t do) in the months leading up to Weto’s change:
Respect for the horse’s state of mind and physical condition: Whenever I feel that Weto is not in the mood for training or has a physical issue, I don’t train. It could be that he is a bit spooky because of a storm coming or feels tired due to a flu vaccination. On these days I just spend time with him without wanting anything. If I should notice that today is not a good day during the training, I either stop the training or give him a lot more time than on other days, depending on the circumstances. I never force him to work with me and I try to stop before he cannot focus anymore or gets tired.
Keeping a routine: I noticed that both Weto and Nazir like to keep a routine when we are together. They like to know what’s coming. So we have our little rituals: I take them out of the field, they are allowed to graze a bit on the way to the stable. After grooming we start the training. Then I wash them if they are sweaty, put them in their stall, and feed them an apple and their mineral feed. Next we go out of the stable and do whatever the horse wants to do, for about the same amount of time that I have been training. They usually choose to eat grass, of course, and they can go wherever they want (without dragging me around on the lead rope, that is not allowed. They have to be polite). Sometimes they also go for a walk with me. Then I put them back in the field. I also try to come to the stable around the same time every day.
Consistency in the training: I also keep a routine in the training sessions. Exercises are arranged in a logical sequence that is understandable and predictable for the horse. I’m also trying to give the aids in the same way every day and I avoid introducing too many new ideas at the same time. I always practice the new things at the end of our session so that I can stop immediately when the horse understood. If he doesn’t understand I change the exercise in a way he can understand or I stop with something he can do well already.
Teaching instead of exercising: In every session I work towards a better understanding of the aids. I don’t think about how many long sides of the arena the horse can do a shoulder-in but about how well he understands my inside leg aid, for example. I don’t drill. A few good steps or repetitions are enough for me. Of course I also train endurance in an exercise in order to build up muscle and balance, but only if the exercise feels soft. I spend a lot of time teaching the right response to an aid, too. People often think that, naturally, the horse knows what a certain aid means, but that is not the case. Instead of repeating the aid with more pressure, I think of an exercise we can do so that horse gets it.
Give the horse responsibility: I try to avoid permanent pressure from the reins or my legs. In the academic art of riding, the seat is the primary aid. If the horse doesn’t understand what I want to say with my seat, then I use a secondary aid (hand, rein, leg, spur, whip, voice). The goal is to use less and less secondary aids and give the horse responsibility for its own shape and speed (for example). In my opinion, squeezing the horse with the legs in every step just teaches him to ignore you and to become heavy. For a true lightness of the aids there has to be lightness from the beginning. For me, lightness and giving the horse responsibility are the same thing.
Biomechanics: I train in a way that is not against the horse’s anatomy. I don’t force his head into a position or ride him over his tempo. I teach him to step in the point of mass so he can carry himself better (and also me). Correct stellning and bending is also very important here. If the horse is forced to do movements that are not natural for him, there can be no lightness and we force the horse to be disobedient.
Relaxation and forward down: Weto can have problems due to stiff back muscles, so I let him stretch forward down if he has to, any time. Especially after a new or challenging exercise, I hold the reins at the buckle and he often stretches his nose all the way down into the sand. I wait for him to come back up. Because he knows that I always release him it has become much easier to ask him for collection.
Building up strength and balance: I use exercises that help to straighten the horse and that build up his strength. As Bent Branderup recently said on a course: There is no other purpose in dressage today than making a horse a better horse. He should feel strong, have better balance and be able to impress his collegues in the pasture.
Patience regarding the training progress: Sometimes it might feel as if you are not progressing at all and you have to repeat something over and over. Then, one day, the improvement is there. If you have a good training system, the results will come.
Praise. Lots of Praise: I praise often and for the slightest try. I tell Weto every day that he is the best horse in the world. Of course, I also say that to Nazir and I hope that these two will never discuss the matter. I really mean it, though, and I think they can feel that.
If we are fair, consistent, and give our horses a say in the training, we can create the conditions so that they are able to give us their very best. When they do that is up to them. I am really happy that I seemed to have earned Weto’s trust. Now I’m just waiting for Nazir.
Have you noticed something along the same lines? I’d be happy to hear your stories.
Have a good time with your horses!
Photo credit: Pawel Siwek (photo of Weto taken on the course with Marius Schneider)