A Flexible Mindset

I’m not sure if it’s my history of working with ponies, or my experience with Welsh Cobs, that has given me this skill, but it’s such a useful tactic when training horses and I love the satisfaction I get when I’ve outwitted them.

Last week I was doing some canter poles with a client and after they’d gone over the three poles nicely it all started to go wrong. The mare got quick, tried to cut the corner, and her rider froze in the saddle. So we stopped and took five, to chat about what was happening and where we were going next.

My client told me that this was why she didn’t like doing canter poles. Because the mare got excited and she felt out of control.

The mare has a history of being in a riding school, which I think possibly contributes to the behaviour as she’s used to repetition. But basically, she’s anticipating the exercise. Which causes her to rush or to motorbike round the corner on the approach.

We can predict the behaviour, and we know the reason why it’s happening. The important thing is to make my rider feel in control and confident. So let’s trick this mare!

I got them to walk up over the poles, then trot over them. Doesn’t matter that they’re canter poles, the point is that the horse goes at the requested speed. Then we changed the approach. Coming off either rein, taking a long approach then a short approach. The mare soon stopped anticipating canter over the poles. So then we cantered over the poles! My rider was still expecting to be tanked off over the poles so had the handbrake on a bit. But now that she was realising our tactics, she started to ride the canter and relax her arms.

We then added in circles. If the mare tried to rush on the approach, my rider had to immediately ride a 10m circle. She could repeat the circle as many times as needed so that she felt in control as she turned towards the poles.

With all the variety of approaches to the poles, it started to come together nicely in that the mare was waiting to be told what to do and when, and my rider felt more confident. I also told her that another option whilst schooling is that she leaves the poles and works on the flat for five minutes before returning to the canter poles to diffuse the mare’s ability to predict the exercise.

This got me thinking about where I’d learnt these tactics, and then I remembered King. He was a riding school pony when I learnt to ride who fidgeted and pawed at the floor whenever he was at the front of the ride. I should explain that when we did canter or jump exercises (depending on the lesson level) we’d halt at B in a long line. Anyway, King just anticipated the cantering or the jumping, so to keep him calm and the rider settled, when King was second in line at B, he would overtake the first horse, do the exercise with perfect manners, and then when the first horse had returned to the rear of the ride, they slotted in in front of King. Quite often fidgety horses, especially youngsters, would do this for a few weeks if they showed signs of impatience, and it really worked well.

Another outwitting exercise I remember was with Aries, who loved jumping but got very excitable and usually cantered sideways towards the jump before being straightened three strides away and he’d bomb over. I loved riding him, and know exactly what I’d do to break this habit now, but times and attitudes change. Anyway, to stop Aries predicting the bombing to the jump a few strides away, I remember his owner cantering a circle around the jump, and only when he stayed calm on the turn to the jump, was she allowed to let him jump. She must’ve done twenty circles that first time!

Then I think about Phoenix and how sensitive she is. Some days, an exercise will work really well for her, but others she’ll get her knickers in a twist about. So very often I have to ride a movement once, assess whether her brain has fallen out, and it has, try a slightly different exercise which will have the same results.

It’s the same in lessons sometimes. I may have a plan, but if rider or horse are struggling with one of the first steps I either have to change my goal for the end of the lesson, pushing my original plan back a week or two, or I have to divert in order to get over this stepping stone.

It’s all about having a plan, but knowing the three or four optional routes which will get you there, and then responding quickly to the horse you have on the day, so that you keep them on your side and maximise your training session.

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