There Is Snow and What Horses Can Do Wrong
I woke up this morning to real snow--not an illusion. It's just a dusting, but the day promises to stay cold so it's not too likely I will ride very much.
So, I began to think about Jen's question in regard to getting Tucker forward and decided to offer my perspective. First, be warned--Tucker intimidates me sometimes. He is nearly 17h with a short back, a strong determination, an explosive attitude and one darn athletic buck. I worry, at this point in my life, of challenging him too much when he gets stubborn. In that sense, he is not a good horse for me to ride. Were I younger, and as fit and determined as I used to be, we'd probably be fine, but now I have to ride him with finesse and indulgence rather than demands.
All that being said, I also know that he is very sensitive and reacts very acutely to his own physical discomfort. So, whenever I have training issues, my first thought is that something is bothering him. Eliminating the pain from his ulcers was a key to fixing the bulk of my training problems. As you may recall, he was dreadful at horse shows and would often simply stop, or threaten to buck if I so much as put my leg on. He has also had some issues with his stifle and hocks--I suspect his hocks are bothering him a bit now. Usually, Adequan will ease the hock issues, but he may be developing some spavin and since I am not competing now, I would rather that fuse if possible, so I am not treating it. If I can manage, I my have his hocks xrayed to see what's going on in the spring. The key here is that when he does not want to work, I have to consider a physical issue as the primary cause.
The biggest issue is keeping him, and any horse, ahead of the leg. Once that is accomplished, as I've said, almost all the upper level exercises become relatively easy. This includes piaffe and passage. While I have never quite successfully fully trained a horse to do both, I have ridden the movements and in all cases, "Forward" is the key. The horse must want to keep moving, even when the rider restrains the forward movement. This is even true in the reinback and the halt, strange as it sounds.
Thus, one of the most important exercises you can do is repeated transitions. Usually, even the laziest, or most unresponsive horse will wake up and "go" when asked over and over to change his gait. Walk to trot, trot to walk, trot to canter, canter to trot, and eventually, walk to canter, over and over in less than half the arena, less, when you begin to develop some skill.
Frequent changes of direction and movement from one exercise to another also sharpen a horse to the aids. Riding in an endless circle or riding around and around on the track, doing nothing special just makes a horse "turn off" to your aids.
Adding some challenges to the ride helps as well. I love reading about Muriel's gymkhana exercises as dressage riders tend to forget how to have some fun like that, and there is much to be learned from such games. Add some trotting poles. How about a little jump, or something as simple as half passing up to a rail set on a jump standard or barrels for the rider to push off? Half pass along a pole, do a turn on the haunches or pirouette inside a square of rails. Weave in and out of a line of cones or some other obstacle. (One of our bloggers used a line of trees on the lawn--great idea.)
And what about just forgetting the rein contact sometimes and just going for it in a nice loose trot or canter around the arena? One master dressage trainer I used to ride with advocated galloping every dressage horse for at least four minutes a ride. Another master trainer had me do exactly that when my PJ started to shut down in a lesson.
But what about the horse that doesn't go off the leg? Here's where I run into trouble with Tucker, although when I am more fit than I am now, I will reestablish the rules. Here the key is the dressage whip. But the key is to use it well. As a rider, you have to decide just how much leg pressure you want to use to get the horse to respond. When I rode hunters, I wanted my horse very light to my leg. I like my dressage horses just a little less responsive, so that I can rest my leg on them and not have them react to that contact. Once I have decided just how much leg I want to used to get an answer, I apply that. If I don't get the response on the first "ask" I must use a tap of the whip immediately.
This gets a bit tricky if you have a bucker like Tucker. (Don't you love how that rhymes?) He will usually kick out. But, if I steel myself and my nerve, a quick rein correction and a repeat of the tap will pretty much convince him I mean business. The idea here is that the leg aid is not repeated, but backed up at once by an artificial aid that demands a response. You can also use a sharp kick, or a spur--something that demands instead of "asks." Once the horse goes, you transition back to the previous exercise and apply the leg aid again, expecting the response you wanted in the first place. It might take a few times, but most horses get the message quickly and start to work correctly off the leg.
Another method for helping establish forward is the lateral exercises. We've already discussed shoulder-in. Both that and travers displace one end of the horse from the other and make it very difficult for him to hold his body against the rider. By moving either the hind end or the front end to the side, you are now dealing with only "half a horse" and have a much better chance of getting his legs to move as you want them to. He cannot easily lock his back against you.
Using a bit of a leg yield out on a downward transition tends to keep the horse's feet moving so he is less likely to lose the forward feel. So, I might work on a circle doing walk-trot-walk transitions, each time doing a leg yield out on the downward so Tucker cannot shut down. I've used this a bit in the show arena in the corners as well to get him to step under better with his hind end, and it's a useful exercise to ride into the corner like that to engage the hind end before beginning a lengthened trot across the diagonal.
My goal, once the weather allows, is to really establish a sense of "forward" with Tucker, so I'm sure as time goes on I will come up with more ideas. For me, that is one of the fun things about riding. I have been blessed with having ridden with dozens of excellent international trainers over the years from New Zealand (Lockie, my favorite), Holland, Germany, France, Hungary, Russia, Great Britain, Argentina, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, and, of course the USA. I have had amazing opportunities in my riding career. I have, I am sure, forgotten more than I remember, but every time I get into the saddle and discover a new training issue to deal with, something one of those trainers told me seems to worm its way back into my brain and I figure out a solution. Sometimes too, sheer instinct comes into play and I just "do it."
Writing the blog really helps me think my methods through, as do your questions. So, thanks to all for your comments. Even after some forty plus years of riding, I still have a long way to go. I appreciate the help.