Monday, August 30, 2010

Trying Too Hard

I think it's very easy to try too hard when working with horses, and if we're trying too hard - to get too much done in too short a time, to take things further than the horse is ready for - the horse probably feels that as tension in us. So lately I've been working on really breaking things down and making sure that the goals I set for each work session are incremental, and sometimes very small steps. I've learned the hard way that if I push too hard, sometimes I don't even get progress but rather reversals of progress, and that the "pushing" can cause the horse to cooperate less and perhaps carry that less cooperative attitude forward into the next work sessions. Knowing how far to go, and when to stop, with a work session or a task is a matter of feel, and varies from horse to horse, and although I think I've made some progress on this over the past several years, for me it's a work in process.

Dawn had a well-deserved day off yesterday, but today we went back to work, in the morning this time as it's supposed to get pretty hot today. I had a couple of goals today - to take a brief trail walk (we don't go more than 50 yards from the barn at this point) and reinforce "no balking", to work on our shortening and lengthening of stride at the trot without losing consistent softness, and to begin our softening work at the canter. First we took our brief trail excursion - there were two points where she briefly considered balking, but those were easily dealt with - once all I has to do to get her to move forward was to chirp and the second time I had her take just one step to the side and she moved right out again.

Then we did a lot of trot work, shortening and lengthening stride at the trot. I wanted her to keep the same rhythm regardless of the length of stride, and to stay soft. Due to her confirmation, Dawn finds shortening work easier. Lengthening is still a work in progress - it's getting better but there's a way to go. I need to get her to relax more and stretch out while staying soft - this is hard for her. Occasionally when we're lengthening, she'll start to push on the bit a little and want to start bracing, then I just do some circles and figures and pretty soon the softness is back. I'm also including some loose rein trotting in these sets, where I want the same rhythm maintained, and this is going well.

I'm actually not entirely sure how to describe how I ask her to shorten and lengthen at the trot - I don't use much if any leg and the leg I use tends to be a bit more when we're shortening to support her impulsion. I don't ask her to slow with the reins when we shorten - I actually don't want slow anyway, I want short - but I think I adjust my hand position somewhat upwards for shortening to maintain the soft contact since her head and neck shorten somewhat and her head position is a bit higher when we're shortening - but I'm not putting her head anywhere, this is a natural outcome of soft carriage with a shorter stride. I'm pretty sure I change my posting a bit, from a feel of "forward" where the post has a more horizontal element, to a feel of "up" where the post has less forward movement to it, although I don't really post higher either. When I'm sitting the trot, I just change the feel of my seat bones moving to more "up" for shortening and more "forward" for lengthening and ask her with my thought to match that feeling - it's almost more thought than body, I think. Is that confusing? Dawn is so sensitive, and what I'm doing is so small and I just do it without thinking about it, that it's hard to describe. Perhaps I'll get some pictures and see if any of this is visible.

We did several long sets of this and Dawn did very well. So we did some walking around on a loose rein and then did a little bit of halt/walk work. I want her to maintain the softness she's got at the halt into the first walk step. I've figured out that I need to keep my reins short (very soft contact, however) and not push my hands forward when I ask for walk. I'm also not using my legs - right now that can cause her to pop her head up. Today I tried signaling the walk through my seat by starting to move my seat bones as if we were walking and thinking the rhythm. That seemed to work - I need to refine this so there's less motion and more thought and see how that works.

Then we moved on to our canter work. Dawn's a horse who can sometimes try too hard. She both wants to be right and worries that she's going to be wrong - part of this is her personality and part of it is due to prior bad experiences with "trainers". Getting and keeping relaxation with her is really important, and the faster the gait the harder this is to do. Perhaps she's also remembering her racehorse days from long ago as well as her gallops on the trail with my daughter, who knows? When she canters, her natural tendency is to want to speed up and also lean and brace on my hands. Today our objective was to get 3, and only 3, soft steps at the canter in one direction, and with only a couple of repetitions. We did the left lead. Her departures were flawless as usual. She struggled with the softening, but we finally got 3 soft steps without bracing - this required using a smaller circle than we've been using for our trot work - if the horse's neck is bent a bit it's a lot harder to brace. I would let her canter without much contact for 5 or 10 steps and then ask again. If she started to lean on my hands, I would turn her and be sure to sit up very straight and quietly. We did this a couple of times, took a walk break, and then we cantered again. As soon as I got the 3 steps we moved back to trot and worked on getting back our relaxation - she was pretty jazzed up and it took a while - I wanted her to be able to do the shortening/lengthening work in another set, with loose rein trot mixed in, without being tense or rushy. As soon as she relaxed in the trot work, we were done.

She'll get the idea soon I think that she doesn't have to try too hard at the canter, just let it be more relaxed and soft. She got there at the trot and that should carry over at least somewhat. I was delighted with her work and told her so. More tomorrow!


  1. Years ago when I was taking regular lessons, my trainer (a dressage rider) would tell us to THINK what we wanted, like "think you want him to walk! Don't DO anything, just think it!" and it would work. I remember being so amazed at the time! I guess when you visualize what the next thing you want feels like, your body makes very subtle changes that your horse recognizes. Horses are pretty incredible, when you think that they can feel those things and understand them so quickly, it's pretty amazing.

  2. I think lots of us riders know exactly what you mean by thinking what you want. There is never a time when I don't think, "hey, when we get to that corner I'm going to trot" and before I even get there Dusty is trotting, without being asked. I know I haven't shortened my reins or given any leg, it's just a thought. I'm convinced horses are either so in tune to our bodies and the subtlest cues that we don't even know we are giving or else they are Kreskins. Mind readers pure and simple.

    Sounds like Dawn is making wonderful progress. I'm all for slow small steps, it's the only way to go.

  3. My last Arabian mare was totally telepathic. Particularly when it came to cantering (her favorite gait), I couldn't even think it or she would be off!

    Having a horse that's full of try is such a great feeling. Page was not one of those horses. She really just wanted to be left alone most of the time. Dee on the other hand wants to please, almost to a fault. And I say to a fault because you're right, it's so easy to over do it with this kind of horse. I've seen too many times where riders take an ok ride and turn it into to a fight just because of "one more thing". Knowing when to continue and when to stop is definitely a key to good horsemanship.

  4. I love the bond that you and Dawn are forging together.

  5. Kate I just wanted to say that I've been catching up on all of your recent posts. They have been FANTASTIC for many reasons. I got behind on my reading last week and am catching up and really enjoyed reading your last several posts.

    In regards to this post Bonnie is one, as I have mentioned before, that likes to try and stay ahead of me and not necessarily "with" me. I know she's just trying to be good and offer what I want, but as you know that can offer up its own set of challenges to deal with. Still, I'd rather be working with a horse that is trying vs. one that is really disengaged.

  6. Kate,
    What a wonderful post! It is so good to be reminded not to try for too much progress - I, too, accidently, or sometimes out of enthusiasm, ask for yet more progress when my horse has indeed shown some improvement. Perhaps I will add the dictum - get the same progress three times, on three successive days, before asking for the next increment. You've given me something very valuable to think about. Also, thank you for the terrific descriptions about your changes for shortening and lengthening strides, and your aids at the canter. Wonderful, helpful information!


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.