I just had the most amazing ride on Zelador. Since I returned from Europe Iâ€™ve been thinkingâ€¦when you touch the rein on a Grand Prix dressage horse what do you expect? You expect softness, chewing, no tension. Soâ€¦ that’s what I’ve been working on with Zelador. Today he was able to give that to me at the walk and trot on both reins. It was sensational! Zeloso, on the other hand, is a bit behind his brother. However, today Zeloso demonstrated that he understood this chewing thing a bit better than he did yesterday and he is grasping the “raise your back, relax your neck, go into the contact, carry your head NOT in the air!!”
Where did this breakthrough come from? The lessons in Belgium with Penny â€œturned the light onâ€. Again and again she insisted that if I made any move with my body the horse had to respond instantly. As I sat up there on one of her horses I was thinking, â€œWhat sheâ€™s saying is a bit much. Certainly people donâ€™t respond that quickly when theyâ€™re asked to do something.â€ When I was done with the ride and leading the horse back to its stall I realized that I wanted the horse to respond instantly as I was handling it. I didnâ€™t want a time lag and I certainly didnâ€™t want the horse to delve into independent thinking. When youâ€™ve got a 16.3 hand high critter walking next to you, YOU had better be the boss or you could get stepped on.
Later in the evening I was enjoying Belgiumâ€™s bug free outdoor conditions on the veranda. What a joy to be outside after dark. Back at our farm itâ€™d be worth your life to sit outside without full body cover. My thoughts went back to the ride. â€œInstantâ€â€¦hmmm. It was challenging to imagine Zelador and Zeloso becoming that attentive and responsive. AND thatâ€™s when it HIT me. They already are! Not under saddle, but at liberty. Furthermore, in my liberty work I make Penny look like a softie when it comes to following through on the command to the horse. At liberty when I ask for the walk/trot transition the horse responds as I think the thought and if for some reason thereâ€™s a delay, then the horse is propelled forward by my voice and/or body language. (Ah, ha! So thatâ€™s what I need to do under saddle. Itâ€™s the old, â€œeverything is BLACK and WHITEâ€ for the horse.)
In all honesty, I wasnâ€™t always precise in the liberty work. Two major horses in my life were extremely â€œhotâ€ and spooky. I learned how to calm myself and them. (Propelling them forward wasnâ€™t even on the list!) Richard Lledo introduced me and the Zs to liberty training and he worked every session at getting me to ask the horses to do something, then to follow through if they didnâ€™t comply. Zelador and Zeloso grasped these concepts much faster than I did! However, over time, I improved.
Another person who helped with this breakthrough is my blacksmith, Bob Scott. A couple of years ago he was trimming Zeladorâ€™s feet and the young horse was fidgeting. Bob asked me to go outside and check on his dog. I left the barn, fully understanding that Bob and Zelador were going to have a chat about being polite and listening to instructions. I came back into the barn and everything was quiet. Bob was trimming the hoof and Zelador was standing still, calm and relaxed.
Bob finished the trimming and helped me lead the boys to the paddock. As I approached the gate I heard him laugh. He was walking behind me with Zelador. I asked him what happened and he said, â€œThis is a very smart horse. Earlier we worked on the â€˜Whoaâ€™ and just now I started to say whoa. I couldnâ€™t even get the â€˜Wâ€™ sound out of my mouth and he stopped on a dime.â€
The third thing which brought about the breakthrough was: every time Iâ€™ve taught something to Zelador he learned it very quickly. So, if heâ€™s not learning how to travel under a rider with a raised back, with his neck relaxed and his head at the vertical, chewing softly, then Iâ€™m not teaching it properly.
During my first ride when I returned from Europe I rode Zelador at the walk, pretending that he knew nothing about rein contact. I isolated the things I wanted to teach him. First of all he needed to WALK. That wasnâ€™t a problem. Next, he needed to keep his head down (not up in the air, wiggling about). We walked and every time he hinted at raising his head, I said, â€œput your head downâ€ (he learned these words when I taught him to lower his head in his stall), sent him forward with my legs and kept repeating these two things until he complied. When he did what I asked, I stopped annoying him, praised him and continued walking. After a few days of BLACK and WHITE he was able to maintain the frame with quite a bit of diligence on my part. I learned to recognize the very first hint of a thought on his part which would lead to him popping his head up in the air. When I corrected him at this stage, the horse was able to maintain his frame with just a little tension. If I was day-dreaming and missed his early sign then it would take many walk steps before I could restore order.
When Zelador was good at walking in a relaxed, yet correct frame, I added the request for â€œchewingâ€. I started that session working him in-hand. Every time I touched a rein I waited for him to chew. Etienne demonstrated teaching the horse how to chew when he was here last winter. He stood at Zeladorâ€™s head, raised the rein (perpendicular to the ground with a very light contact) and waited PATIENTLY for Zelador to relax his jaw. When the horse chewed, Etienne let him chew for a few seconds, released the rein and went to the other side to begin again. I remember during one session he included the work on chewing from the ground then addressed the issue from the saddle. After a few minutes Etienne got off Zelador and worked on the soft jaw/chewing from the ground, again. He was helping the horse make the association between chewing with Etienne beside him and chewing with Etienne in the saddle. Day after day I watched him work with the horse. Again and again I was amazed by the incredible patience of this man and the clarity with which he presented something to the horse.
An interesting â€œasideâ€ happened when I mentioned â€œchewingâ€ to Bob Scott today while he was trimming the horseâ€™s feet. He asked what I meant. He described what he looks for in his horses when he touches a rein (he shows in Western classes on his Quarter Horses and Appaloosas). The term he used is: softness in the lower jaw. We figured we were looking for the same thing.
As I was telling Bob about my lessons in Belgium another sentence spoken by Penny crept into my thoughts, â€œWhen you ask for the next walk/trot transition feel that heâ€™s starting the trot with his hind legs.â€ The reason you can FEEL the hind end is because youâ€™re allowing the horse to carry you. Youâ€™re not gripping anywhere with your body and the horse is lifting your hips to your hands. If you were gripping, or your shoulders were in front of your seat, then you would have difficulty feeling what the horse is doing with parts of his body. When youâ€™re in that Zen-like state (floating over/upon the horse) the slightest change in your torso makes a significant change in the horseâ€¦talk about learning how to control YOUR own body before you can control the body of the horse.
Back to todayâ€™s ride: I asked Zelador for the walk/trot transition, knowing that maintaining his frame and softness is still quite new to him. The young horse sprang forward, powered by that big hind end without compromising the rest of his body. Wow! We did a few more transitions and I told him he was the most wonderful horse in the world, jumped off and gave him a carrot.