Friday, August 21, 2009

Breaking It Down

Bear with me for some training talk tonight. I am right in the thick of it. Thoughts are swimming around in my head so fast as I'm riding that I wish I had a personal assistant to whom I could dictate all the ideas.

We are almost ready to move out to the new barn - just a little over a week now. We brought home a bale of their (very, very nice) orchard grass/timothy hay to get the girls adjusted, walked their stalls and paddocks one more time, etc. The girls love the hay, naturally, and plow straight through it - I don't think Pandora will need any grain at all when she's getting fed that stuff 3x a day with supplemental alfalfa! McKinna is a bit more of a concern since she tends to get runny poop on anything richer than grass hay, but we'll see.

I have been reading and re-reading Jane Savoie's book That Winning Feeling lately. Not just the sports psychology sections, either, though those are extremely useful. Mostly this one little section on training.

I'll talk more about it later, but basically: you give a very specific cue for which there is one very specific correct response. Your horse responds in some way, either correct or incorrect. You then respond with reward (if correct) or discipline/correction (if incorrect).

Simple. Straightforward.

I say go, you go. If you don't go, I back it up with the whip. When you do go, I praise.

Obviously it's more refined. For example, when I say "go," I want immediate, uphill, relaxed transition into the next gait up without dumping on the forehand or rushing. But you build that gradually - first you insist on FORWARD, no matter what. Then you insist on FORWARD, no matter what, plus maybe not quite so fast. Then you ask for FORWARD no matter what but not quite too fast and also a little more in balance, if you please.

The praising is what really does it for Pandora. Yes, that was the right answer, what a wonderful smart horse you are! It makes up for any discipline - whip, voice, correction - that she receives for incorrect responses. She rushes, I half-halt and circle. When she doesn't rush, a quiet "good girl" and stroke on the neck is all it takes for her to try very hard to avoid rushing.

I like this pattern: cue/response/discipline-or-reward. It is simple and straightforward and best of all, extremely clear to the horse.

It gets a little more tricky for things that aren't as straightforward as "Go." Like, "Go forward on a 20-meter circle while bending correctly nose to tail at a reasonable pace and moving off my leg and not spooking at anything in the corners."

That just makes it more challenging for me. For her, I must provide a clear sequence: cue/response/discipline-or-reward. For me, I need to figure out how I can separate this into clear cues, each with a single correct response and easily identifiable ways of correcting or disciplining any number of wrong responses.

Let's take our main issue: left bend. We have been working on the simple 'Go' response, and her forward button is fantastic. In fact over the past week or so her gaits have become more powerful and forward, her rhythm more steady, my half-halts more effective, and her leg-yields much more prompt.

But bending to the left is, um, a challenge.

We got to where we could bend properly while walking on a 20 meter circle. Nicely forward, reaching into the bit, swinging with the back, stepping under herself, proper bend.

But pick up the trot, and it all goes out the window. I haven't had any eyes on the ground, but I'm pretty sure she's evading by dropping her inside shoulder, swinging the haunches out, and leaning on the inside rein by tilting her muzzle to the outside.

Extremely aggravating, I tell you. If I make her move over, she just moves that butt out further. I couldn't seem to get the shoulders out and the butt in while maintaining a good bend. It frustrated me because I couldn't come up with an appropriate, clear-cut discipline, and she was not coming any closer to giving me the correct answer no matter how many times I applied the specific aids.

So: I had to break it down.

Yesterday I had one of those weird, productive-but-frustrating rides. I was working on this left-bend problem and wasn't really getting anywhere, but I was going over it constantly in my mind, worrying at it like a dog with a really good chew toy. What I was doing wasn't working, but it felt like I was on the right track.

Today, it started working.

What's the problem? Haunches on the outside, shoulders collapsed inside, can't fix it. Okay, so not only do I need her to bend correctly to the left, I need to get control of her butt and her shoulders.

Okay. So, I need to move those haunches in, to the left. I can practice that by working on turns on the forehand - and for those, a very clear cue/response/discipline-or-reward sequence is available. Inside leg back, outside leg supports, reins keep the head straight, move the butt over. If she doesn't respond, tap with the whip.

So we work on that some, and now at least she's aware that when that outside leg goes back, I want her haunches to move over.

She already moves her shoulders when I ask her to, so that's not the issue.

I practice bend: since she can hold correct bend on a walk circle of 20 meters, I do that. Let's use the tools we have. Once I have a perfect walk with perfect bend, I ask her to trot and I hold her in that same body position. She can't hold it very well in the trot, but I can get a couple strides in and praise her. This is important. I gave her the ability to give me the right answer. Before, no matter what she did, she was never right. Now, I set her up for success, and she gets to experience a brief lightbulb: Oh, yes, that was correct!

Oh, one last thing, one I should have realized long ago. I lean to the left on turns. Duh. Left bend is a problem, I work hard to fix it, as I work hard I start to lean because I really want her to bend to the inside, and voila, my weight on the inside throws her off-balance and pushes those haunches out. Correcting this really helped.

So, end result: her left bend isn't perfect. But it's getting a lot better, she's a lot happier because she gets to give me the right answer more often (because the right answer is now smaller, simpler, and easier for her to actually accomplish), and I'm a lot happier because we're making progress and I am able to be consistent.

I think I talked about consistency in a post before. It's important.

So is praise, for Pandora at least. Super important. I'll talk about that more later, I think, but she is a totally different animal when I remember to tell her when she does something right.

I'll definitely have more on the whole That Winning Feeling thing later, too. Like I said, lots of thinking lately, but I'm sure appreciating it. This was the first dressage school in a long time where I felt like I was getting somewhere, not shooting myself in the foot from lack of experience. I should try to note what happened, so I can try to repeat Really Good Rides like this. Let's see: I was thinking really hard and applying new solutions and they worked. I was trying to understand things from Pandora's point of view and break things down really far and be super consistent. I was analytical, not emotional. I used a lot of variety. Hmm. All things to think about.

I also did some "Judge Booth Therapy" with her tonight. She is a little bit silly about judge's booths at dressage tests, something about going straight towards a big scary (truck/table/etc) with people sitting on it right at the end of the arena really freaks her out. Then she spooks at it for the rest of the ride. Easy enough to work on at home, with potentially big score results if that tension is gone in tests.

So I grabbed a plastic chair, some traffic cones, and some flower boxes and arrayed it all into a nice visually complex arrangement at the end of the arena. Sure enough, lots of hairy eyeball and sideways skitter and the like. Darn mare almost got me off once too, spooking at the combination of the "judge's box" and the barn owner's kid swinging buckets out front. Made me laugh, at least! She was much more sensible about it by ride's end. I sort of ignored it for most of the ride, just made her bend to the inside as we passed it and sometimes go down the centerline towards it. In all I think it'll be useful to get rid of this fear.

So, there's my day. Best ride I've had in awhile, I was grinning like an idiot the whole time I put stuff away. And you guys get a nice big long post, which is only about a quarter of all the crap I had going on in my head while I rode, but I'll get around to all of it eventually.

Right then - next up, the importance of praise, more on the cue/response/discipline-or-reward thing, more sports psychology fun, etc etc etc.


Cara said...

Wow, that is a long post! You have been thinking about it alot. That helps. I too think it's important not to finesse all the time, right from the start. You need to get the basic responses. It's like programming the controls. When you get it all "in," you should not only be able to make a nice twenty meter circle in both directions, but, if you choose, a 17 meter circle or a 21 meter circle. The idea is that YOU CHOOSE where you are going and how you get there!

manymisadventures said...

Yes, exactly - if you start by building a solid base, then you can get up to the finicky, pretty things at the top.

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