Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dressage Training: Don't Take It Personally

Remaining calm during a past "discussion."
I've been thinking a lot about the big change I made to my training regime in late 2010. For many reasons, the situation wasn't working, and hadn't been working for a very long time. It took me a while to see this, and even longer to work up the courage to make the changes I needed to for my horse and I to be happy, but I did it and I couldn't be happier!

There are many aspects of the old training system versus the new that I could go into, but I think the fundamental philosophy of how the horses are trained in these two different systems comes down to the adage, "Don't take it personally."

In the old way I was trained, there was a lot of blame on the horse, with phrases like, "She's just being a brat! KICK her! PULL on that rein!" etc. As if the horse was trying to personally insult me by not doing what I wanted her to do, and if I could bully her into cooperating, everything would be solved.

The reality was that I just wasn't being clear and consistent enough in my aids to get the result I wanted, and by making these aids LOUDER and more aggressive, I was just agitating her more. I find it painful to think back on some of the "training" I participated in, especially because my gut told me "this isn't right," but I kept with it for a very long time. While I wish I could erase the past, or at least yell at my younger self, "get out NOW," the reality is that all I can do is move forward and not make the same mistakes again.

I have a hard time articulating the difference in how I do things now, but after reading an excellent article in the May 2012 USDF Connection magazine by Kim Walnes (Page 39, but I believe you have to be a member to read the article), I think she sums up the philosophy I have learned from the new trainers I have worked with the past couple of years.

The article, titled "Be Your Horse's Protector," had a lot of great information in it, and really puts into words what a lot of people intuitively do around horses, but my "epiphany" moment came when reading the line, "What human's often perceive as horses' resistant behavior is simply their way of asking questions." When you look at things this way, it is so much easier not to take things personally and get angry, even if your horses asks a LOT of questions, as my mare does. :)

If fact, she is constantly asking me questions like, "why do I have to be round to do a haunches in?" and "why do I need to take the right rein?" or "how can I bend through the corner when there is an imaginary werewolf standing at F?" She can be quite dramatic in asking these questions, too. In the past, things would escalate, including my blood pressure, and we'd often end at an impasse, with us both angry, agitated and still not stretching into the right rein, because we'd turned the Q&A session into a full out screaming match.

It took a lot of time to even be able to have a "discussion" with her. The first year of dressage retraining I basically had to make everything an enjoyable experience, because any sort of discussion would send her into a tizzy. This process involved sugar cubes, lots of pats, and just getting her to learn to stretch into a light contact. Now that we are pushing through some of her weak points - staying round at the canter, being consistent in the bridle in a more collected frame, etc., I'm having to tread the treacherous waters of serious discussions again.

Now, however, as opposed to in the past, I'm able to stay remarkably calm. I've watched both my trainers, Nina and Katy, ride this way many times. They never lose their temper, they just keep asking and as soon as the horse gives, even a little, they reward them. The reality is, too, I don't really have a reason to get angry. My horse doesn't owe me anything. I'm not trying to set the dressage world on fire, I'd just like to push our relationship to the level where I can ask for something and she will try it right away versus immediately turning defensive.

Mostly, I'd like to earn her trust, and I feel like I've already made leaps and bounds in this department in the past two years. It doesn't necessarily show in my scores, but I have felt a really amazing collected and medium trot, and I'm getting glimpses, during our "discussions" about this, of some nice canter steps. I just have to remember that the judge doesn't see the past and how far you've come, only what is in front of them, which may not look so hot in their eyes or on that particular day, but I know what it has taken for us to come this far, and I'm content. :)

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