So Starbuck's back on the "Go" stretch of the Whoa / Go cycle. After nearly three weeks of being nearly bombproof, she's suddenly started spooking again at absolutely nothing and I even got dumped again the other day (no harm done luckily). On the other hand, she's much more responsive to my leg aids (and needs less nagging to keep going) so that's a nice change. And talking to some stable-mates the other day I realized, with Starbuck I either have impulsion (go) or I have control (whoa) but the moment I have one I lose a considerable amount of the other and get around a 80/20 ratio (if it's a good day) instead of the 50/50 I'm working toward. I guess this is probably a fairly common occurrence in horse training and it probably shouldn't have taken me so long to figure out the relationship between the two, but there it is. Sometimes I have a hard time recognizing the obvious.
I think one reason is that up until now I've been subconsciously happy enough to relinquish impulsion for control, but I realize that's been a pretty big mistake. For one thing, as my personal muse Carolyn Resnick says, the most important thing to have when training is a gas pedal. And my gas pedal takes like a minute to go from 0 to 60 when I'm asking for it (of course when there's an imaginary tiger in the bushes she can channel her Thoroughbred race horse ancestors in about 2 seconds). For another, if I only practice being in control when there's next to no impulsion, how can I hope to control her in stressful situations (trail rides, shows, etc...) or when she's just feeling silly? And finally, if we want to progress in dressage or even get her moving in a healthy, sustainable way, I really need to be able to command those hind legs to get moving and support her instead of trailing along behind.
So if this is all about baby steps and setting us up for success and taking our time, what seems to me to make sense is to work on the two issues together in alternating or combined exercises, trying to even out the ratio. And if in a month we have 75/25 instead of 80/20 I'll know I'm on the right track - I know I can't hope for 50/50 right off the bat but at least I'll know in which direction to keep going (or that I need to choose a new one). So in addition to what Daniela and Marina have been suggesting in my lessons with them, we're working on the following exercises:
- Walk - Canter - Walk - Halt transitions
- Trot - Halt - Back - Trot transitions
- Trot from one side of the arena to the other like your life depended on it, then stop and rest for as long as you were trotting. Then turn around and repeat.
- "Slower - faster" transitions within each gait, especially at trot and canter
On the slower - faster transitions within each gait, I recently read something on a forum which resonated with me - "I think it's important for a lazy horse to feel both ends of each gait; if you are constantly driving forward, forward, forward, you won't get anywhere, and your horse probably won't figure out what you want. Instead, if you ask for a little at first, then gauge back, then ask for more each time, you will find a bigger improvement." I already try really hard to not have my leg on constantly, but this is really good to keep in mind - I can't just ask for her to lengthen her stride on the entire long side of the arena right off the bat and expect her to do it well, or be motivated to do it better the next time. So I'm going to start asking her to lengthen and as soon as she does it stop asking, praise and let her drop back into her normal stride. Then when she consistently lengthens as soon as I ask for it, I'll ask for a few more lengthened strides, then move up from there.
And once I have control not only of "whoa" but of "go" as well, I think we'll be a lot closer to our long-term goal of working happily, healthily, sustainably and safely together.