Thursday, August 25, 2011

How to make a dressage horse, phase 1

I've been watching the European Dressage Champs this week. Some of the horses competing are a similar age to Maz. They are doing international Grand Prix, she is in the first stages of becoming a riding horse. Currently there are billions of lightyears between the two. But this is how all those GP horses started, albiet some 6-7 years earlier!

I have trained and ridden a lot of young horses, racehorses mainly, arabs, stockhorses, warmbloods, back in the day. I have retrained older horses, either off the track or who have had time off from being under saddle. The difference between these guys and Maz is that they started as youngsters, so the concept of being a riding horse, a horse that works regularly for a few hours, a horse that has a job is instilled. Maz has been sunbaking poolside with cocktails and cute waiters all her life. Now the money has run out of the expense account, and she is expected to do some work. You can imagine the culture shock.

She is 9 weeks in work now, and 8 weeks under "saddle" ( the first week was bareback!) and the last 5 weeks with me. We are still working on accepting the initial saddling up process (without walking off, barging, humping, half rearing, aggressive behaviour). Once the saddle is girthed up, it can be taken off and on without drama multiple times. So she is not what I would call classically girthy, just resistant to the idea in the first instance.

She is sometimes resistant to the first steps under saddle. This I am not worried about. As her strength, suppleness, confidence and understanding grow, this will disappear.

Turning and bending right is an issue. Sometimes she can do it beautifully, if only for a few steps, but more often, it's a battle of mind, body and flexion to get any bend right, and sometimes even a simple turn right is overhwelming. You'll see above where I go to turn right on her and change my mind, take her left to avoid the resistance that is building up, and take her back right again when she softens. No point arguing over something that can be negotiated on for a better outcome later. Ingrain quality at every attempt, and reward and encourage any try.

Often she is very resistance to the very first request for halt under saddle. If I get that blockage, we go forward and I ask again later. Same with backing up. First attempt usually results in humping, head shaking and a big fat no. So again, we try again later until we get a lovely soft rein back, based on intent only.

So while I dream of rhythmic, cadenced 20m trot circles, each day when I ask myself what does Maz need from me today, what support does she need, what does she need help with, what is she struggling with today, my goals are always around softness and calmness in the mind and body, and to finish the session with understanding, acceptance and more confidence from her than she walked into the arena with. If that means she doesn't get ridden that day, to achieve my basic goal, so be it. I think we are slowly getting somewhere. And on those days, like yesterday,  when she snakes her head at me, fronts me up and does beautiful levade in a game of "Who will yield ground first, little puny human",  I remind myself of the upfront, bolshy yearling who captured my imagination nearly 10 years ago, and I tell myself that's why I bought her, and why we are still together.

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