I really appreciate Skye’s expressiveness. Getting to know her is proving a pleasure. Nuno Oliveira said:
The horse is the best judge of a good rider, not the spectator. If the horse has a high opinion of the rider, he will let himself be guided, if not, he will resist.
A horse will never tire of a rider who possesses both tact and sensitivity because he will never be pushed beyond his possibilities
Something to aim for then! Not to ride as well as Nuno (impossible) or to have that wealth of knowledge, but to have enough feeling and empathy (enough tact) to be fair with Skye. Because, if a horse could articulate such things, would she also describe getting to know me as a pleasure? It’s worth considering that question. How would the horse describe the handler to its horsey friends?
Skye had a play-date with my friend’s pony Basil yesterday. He’s like a mini-Skye and is very keen on her, it’s so cute. There was a thunderstorm in the distance, rumbles and cracks of lightning, but the horses did not especially care. As I said to my friend, it’s just weather to them. But it was our first time with both of these horses in a storm, so we decided to let them free in the arena. Basil is a springy and punky little thing, Skye looked rather lumbering by comparison! But they had a bit of a hoon around and I’m hoping that when we all move to the new grazing later this month they’ll enjoy becoming part of a herd on larger, varied terrian, and will keep themselves entertained with regular gallops there too.
I think Skye is becoming bored in the arena though, and is ready for a bit more variety or challenge.
I’ve been thinking about enthusiasm and playfulness. In being for +R I’m not against -R. +R is certainly beneficial in many ways, but I imagine you could create a machine-like dead-behind-the-eyes animal with either approach. You could even create a more expressive looking animal with -R or +P, which could be mistaken for enthusiasm. Anyway, what I found myself thinking was this… There are probably plenty of people whose ponies express genuinely intrinsically playful behaviours, with spontaneity and enthusiasm, without the owner ever consciously encouraging it. The owner may even be a purely -R person in terms of training, but if they have tact and a gentle touch (training rather than forcing) the horse can still develop enthusiasm for its working life. Before I had Skye I wasn’t able to implement any +R with the horse I rode as he wasn’t mine. But he would still spring his way over to the gate when I collected him for a lesson, and we had some rides where he gave me far more than I asked for, as though he wanted to impress us all. I think he could feel that I was always pleased with him, whatever he offered or managed.
With Skye, I haven’t begun actively clicking/rewarding “badass” behaviour just yet (for practicalities sake, farrier/vet/etc., I did want to get basic handling sorted first), but she’s begun volunteering it anyway. Only a step or two at a time as she trots towards me (it’s physically difficult for her to sustain that posture, I think), with a proud neck or a little head toss, when I call her name. Not every time, but more often as the weeks go by. It feels genuine. It feels like it’s coming from nowhere but herself.
And this is where her openness matters. She’s really educating me. The basic things that we do that she gets rewards for (walking, halting, all that stuff), she picked it up quickly and it’s really useful for getting her attention and focus at the beginning of a session or if she’s distracted. I mean who cares, let her be distracted right? But if there’s cars coming through or a vet to stand still for or any number of other things then I need to have a way to get that obedience (for want of a better term), despite obedience not being something I especially aim for. Togetherness is more the thing. Shared input.
Anyway. Previously, if we tried something harder and she struggled (eg: backing up) we’d have to drop back down to just walking and halting. Lower the criteria to keep it motivating. But now, if I spend too much time in those lower criteria, she drops her head way down to the ground and performs the task at a crawl. This happened yesterday. She and Basil ran about a bit, then she found her way over to me as though she’d decided she’d like an opportunity for some carrots. We walked, halted, went over a small cross-pole, and her enthusiasm waned. The head dropped lower and lower. The only time she picked up again was when I asked for backing-up. Where normally this task is hard and she gets annoyed after a couple of steps, yesterday she would have just kept on going for as long as I asked. We backed-up on curved lines in both directions, purely off body gestures, no touches or ropes.
She told me she wanted to work, then she told me it was boring, then she told me the harder task was worth her time. So my job is going to be keeping her interested, keeping her at the edge of her abilities and gently shifting back and forth whenever she needs calm reassurance or something slightly more challenging. Hacking out in-hand is currently the best example of this. She’ll be at the edge of her comfort zone for about 40% of the journey (maybe less), but she’ll be forward and curious to explore. It’s the most keen I’ve seen her. Which is great, because it’s also such good exercise, just walking and walking.
I need to be careful not to swing up onto her back too soon, but I’m thinking the overlap may work differently to how I’d originally thought. I’d thought, get her “working” with good posture in walk, trot and canter, before putting anyone on her back. Now I’m thinking to possibly take it gait by gait. I’m increasingly feeling that trot is overdone anyway and I don’t want to trot her on circles for weeks just to get her fit. Too much risk to the joints. How else to get fitter then… Walking for longer periods of time, or over varied terrain, or under an additional load. So perhaps in a few weeks it’ll be time to back, then walk her once a week with a light rider, then with me, then more often or over different terrain, and so on, every so often testing the strength of her posture in trot in our free work or when at play. There’s no rule that as soon as the horse is ridden it should be doing all three gaits under the rider. So long as the walk is marching and healthy, it’s great exercise.
But don’t forget what you learned at a recent lecture… Breathing hard develops the serratus dorsalis, amongst others, which as a secondary benefit strengthens the topline and gives the saddle somewhere to go. So lunging once a week is still a good idea.