Mission: Impossible - Training

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So, what did work? To begin with, we went back to basics to fill in all those blanks left in his training. Everyone thought that just because they put him in draw reins and got his head down that he was “on the bit.” They thought that just because he was moving forward he had impulsion. They thought that just because they could shorten his stride he was collected. Like so many people in the H/J world (and an alarming number of people in dressage) they had completely missed the point.

Of course, at the time I also knew nothing about the technicalities of dressage. I only knew when it felt right and when it felt wrong. And I had the benefit of riding my own horse who was super-sensitive in every respect and wouldn’t tolerate anything but the lightest contact. I didn’t know how to hold a mouth or to pull, or to drive a horse into my hand with seat and leg; that was all foreign to me and doing so always felt wrong.

Everyone talks about contact, contact, contact. And yes, contact is important, but I’ve learned that it’s not something a rider can just create by grabbing hold of the mouth, and it’s not something to be measured in pounds of pressure. Contact is a two-way street, where it is the horse who must accept the presence of the rider’s hand. People talk about putting the horse “on the bit,” but it is the horse who puts himself “on the bit” when the circumstances are right and all of the pieces fall into place, beginning with the relaxed horse accepting contact. Mellon was obviously not ready yet for contact, and certainly not ready yet to go “on the bit.” What they had done with him in the past - putting him in a severe bit, draw reins and riding with a big set of spurs – hadn’t worked. You might be able to bend a horse’s body into a shape resembling “on the bit,” but it’s never the same thing. And it’s certainly no way to encourage him to accept you; it’s a way to force him to do your bidding against his will. And Mellon had decided no one was going to force him; if put in that position, he was going to go down fighting. If I wanted to ride him, I was going to need his willing compliance.

In that situation, what do you do? What helps those pieces to fall into place? Everyone has their own theories, and I was about to discover mine.

Instinctively, I knew I couldn’t take a hold of him without a violent reaction, so I decided just to hack him on a loose rein for a while so he knew I wasn’t going to hurt him or get in his face. I am not a proponent of loose-rein riding on a regular basis (for example, the way hunters today go on floppy reins with their noses poked out, inverted and disconnected,) but if I could get him to trust me, I thought, then I could gradually take up some contact and hopefully he’d accept it.

At this stage, he could handle one rein at a time, but two at once made him feel claustrophobic. So, in the beginning, I only asked him to bend with one wide, leading rein, and rode forward into that bend (obviously not at much speed or he would have lost his balance). I never pulled a rein backward, but always out to the side where the bit would lift into the corner of his mouth and encourage him forward and around the bend. We worked almost exclusively in walk and trot. The tension in his back began to dissipate as he would lower his head and neck and his normally quick, choppy stride began to open up as he covered more ground and tracked well up under himself with his hind legs. He was beginning to relax under me.

And then something amazing and unexpected happened: he began to reach out for my hand. Slowly, tentatively at first, he would stretch out until he had taken the slack out of my reins and established a light contact with my hands. He would stay there for a few strides as if he was testing it out, and then bounce back up. But I never took back; I just kept my hand light and let him find it on his own. Over and over, he’d stretch down into my hand and I’d hold the reins almost in my fingertips to keep the feel light and the contact flexible, just barely feeling his mouth. The more I rode him gently forward, the more he sought my hand.

I kept him on the loose reins, kept bending him gently with occasional small rein corrections, using the short ends of the arena to make half-circles and the long sides to release the bend and let him travel straight. Soon he was consistently stretching forward, down and round, tracking up under himself, seeking the contact and traveling in a beautiful “long and low” frame. Now, not only was he accepting a light contact, but he was volunteering to put himself on the bit. (If anyone is interested, I could post more on how to achieve and use long and low, and I recommend a good post on the subject from Dressage in Jeans here.)

Calm, forward, straight = Relaxed, attentive, balanced

The horseman’s mantra is “calm, forward and straight.” To be effective, each of those elements must be tackled in that order. Relaxation, I have found, is the starting point – without it, a rider has nothing. We focused on getting and maintaining relaxation above all else, and that is what worked for Mellon.

I used that frame not only to develop his trust, his willingness to accept contact, and his relaxation, but also to develop his body. Long and low develops a full range of motion in the horse in a way collected work cannot. Long and low, at least in my experience, is the foundation upon which everything else is built, including collection.

If you cannot get long and low, correct collection will be extremely difficult, if not impossible – it will always be stiff, out of sync, or artificial. And, if you work a horse continually in a short or collected frame, you’ll never develop a full range of motion needed for correct extension, jumping, etc..

I see this all the time with dressage horses, who look positively muscle-bound; they seem incapable of true relaxation and stretching, and often their gaits have lost their natural rhythm and sequence as a result. It is the fashion in the hunters these days to never touch the reins and have the horse flop around on a loose rein with his nose poked out, which also prevents the back from rounding up under the weight of the rider; and Jumpers, like dressage horses ridden improperly or trained with rollkur, frequently have a musculature that indicates they spend all their time in draw reins; their backs are hollow and/or braced, their crests are overdeveloped and a there is a hollow in front of the wither where the trapezius and splenius muscles in particular have never been allowed to function properly, limiting the movement of the shoulders; this posture makes it impossible for the horse to track up. What’s worse, you increase the risk for pain and injury any time the horse is asked to use himself outside of this range of motion (or any time he goes out in the paddock and moves out on his own.) This was where Mellon was when we started.

A horse that is worked long and low, however, will have swing in his back, long ground covering strides, and a loose flowing shoulder, among other things. Working back from there, collection is relatively easy. Reverse engineering all of that lengthening and depth of stride from a muscle-bound, super-collected horse, however, is another story.

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Slowly, with our long and low work, we were on our way. Not only was it a great way to warm up and cool down, but it became a kind of "reset button" for his brain and body whenever there was an issue or tension, and it was also Mellon's reward between brief intensive exercises – especially after jumping. He loved to stretch, and would pop his crest back and forth as he did; Mellon was becoming more relaxed, forward and balanced by the day; from there on the bit became second nature and, I could begin to play with adjusting the length of his frame without creating tension or resistance. In only a few months, we were able to walk, trot, canter, jump small courses and do some basic lateral and collected work respectably. He surprised all of us and, for the first time since he had come to the farm, Mellon was getting noticed for the right reasons.

But this, it turns out, was a double edged sword...

To be continued....

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