From Endurance to Dressage
It has finally occurred to me, in a way that I totally get, that Sydney's resistance to contact is not born of naughtiness but rather fear. Big sigh.
I am not sure that fear is a better thing than poor behavior, but at least I am confident in my "diagnosis." You know I've been doing some equine reading lately, and that's really what helped shed some light on the situation. I have been working with Sydney for ten months, and it just seems as though we're not really getting anyway. In fact, a few weeks ago I was certain selling him was the only answer. We were simply taking backward steps with no forward movement. At all. I just couldn't handle that.
So, I had a good cry, wrote the ad in my head, and told Hubby the news. His response? You've never given up on a horse before. Don't start with this one. Shoot. I wasn't sure if his advice was sound or not, but I figured I could give Sydney at least the summer before I posted his for sale sign on his stall store. During this time I was reading Buck's book and the Mark Rashid book. It occurred to me that since what I was doing wasn't giving me a great deal of success, maybe I needed to try something different. Again. And I did.
It was a Sunday afternoon and Sydney was turned out. His frantic gallop has long since disappeared (Hey, chalk that one up to a move in the right direction!). As I watched him, I noticed that he was enjoying himself at the trot. He was moving from his hind end well, and he was doing big loops around the arena. He was happily trotting in the "scary" corner and looked very relaxed. It gave me an idea.
I realized that Sydney is simply afraid of contact. I suspect that as a racehorse he was jammed into the bridle and simply ran for all he was worth. As a jumper, I assume that he was again crammed against the bit and sent forward over the jumps. I don't think he was ever taught to give to pressure. I decided that my ride that day would focus solely on going forward with no contact. With a loose rein, I was finally able to get some good forwardness from him that didn't reek of a pending bolt.
I decided that I was onto something and needed to pursue it. Since that weekend, we have been doing daily groundwork sessions that focus on giving to pressure. From the ground, I can now move his hindquarters as many steps as I want with a simple tap to his side. From the saddle, he will now take two very nice steps around his forehand with his haunches in both directions. He can now do a lovely lateral bend on the right side from the ground and saddle. I simply lift the inside rein (or lead rope) and he reaches for his side. On Tuesday evening, he finally made that attempt on the left bend.
I heard Clinton Anderson remark once that you can't get vertical flexion without lateral flexion. Yup, that would be very true. I guess that pretty much sums up the exercises that I've been doing with Sydney - lateral flexion.
It was the Mark Rashid book that really helped me focus on finding a solution. His idea of looking at problems from the horse's point of view made me stop and think. Sydney is literally afraid of contact. Why? He feels claustrophobic. By teaching him to yield to pressure, I hope that I am teaching him that contact is not something of which he needs to be afraid.
When I ride him now, I start with a very long rein. Little by little I start gathering it up. As soon as I reach the point that makes him nervous, I simply get his feet moving sideways, and I rock the rein letting him know that I am not going to grab him or hold onto him. As soon he softens, I move my hands forward and give him a big Good Boy. If he spooks or tries to bolt, I do not pull back at all. Instead, I bend his neck to the side in a one-rein stop which we've practiced a bazillion times. The instant he offers any slack, I release the rein and pat him.
On Tuesday I did some light lunging and was delighted with how eh he was about it. Several months ago he would have viewed the lunge line as the place to careen around in a mad gallop. We also did some other ground exercises that included neck bending and turns on the haunches. I couldn't have been happier with how relaxed he was.
So ... is this the answer? I can only keep trying. For now, I'll focus on yielding to pressure from the ground and the saddle. I hope he'll come around. I also hope that by summer you'll hear that he's finally making it to a show and that contact is no longer something scary.
And the dance continues ...
The beauty of books is seeing them change your perspective resulting in real change in your (and your horses') life. Some horses like a heavy connection and some horses have a feather-light connection. And the dressage judges can't tell - its only for you and your horse to work out. =) Sounds like you're making lots of progress, and also that you're not giving yourself enough credit for the incredible amount of progress you've already made.
5/10/2012 11:22:57 am
I do learn best by reading, writing, and thinking. After I've worked something out in my mind, I like to try it for real. Sometimes I find a solution, other times it's back to the drawing board. And thanks for pat on the back. I know you know how it feels to work with a horse that just doesn't suit you. The last few weeks have been nothing but forward steps so maybe Sydney will stay in my barn. My fingers are crossed!
5/10/2012 09:42:18 am
Good for you (and Sydney)! I really enjoy watching you problem solve a horse's "issues". Not everyone has the patience and skill to read a horses subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) body language and realize what they are trying to communicate to you! That's what makes you so great with horses! I"m hoping you have a very productive summer!!
5/10/2012 11:24:58 am
Thanks, Judy. I certainly don't feel "great with horses." A more savvy horsewoman would have figured it out much sooner, I am sure. In any case, I do get points for persistence! I had a GREAT ride tonight and feel that I am definitely on the right path now. He may get to go back for a lesson next week!
5/10/2012 11:44:09 am
This is very cool.
5/10/2012 10:28:35 pm
I am okay with a slow timeline as long as there is some progress, however incremental. I also know when to say when. I truly was ready to quit a few weeks ago. I don't want to get hurt, and I don't want Sydney to get hurt. I wonder if being willing to admit defeat somehow removed some resistance on my part? In any case, we had one of our best rides last night so I know we're on the right path.
5/10/2012 10:33:56 pm
5/10/2012 02:32:36 pm
I think you might have come up with a good plan for Sydney. I learn a lot from reading books and listening to others.Good luck.
5/10/2012 10:33:23 pm
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About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
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Third Level: 62.105%
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