I was riding a friend’s pony last week, I’ve mentioned him before. He is a very fun and rather different ride from Murray. They are both overthinkers, but it seems to express itself in different ways. (Or perhaps I just think it comes out differently because I’m so close to Murray?)
Murray thinks so much that he’s always trying to anticipate my next move, and any movement of my leg or seat or hands can result in drastic direction changes. Logan is busy thinking about what we are doing that direction changes almost seem to sneak up on him, and if I surprise him with one he tenses and inverts. When I put poles down for Murray he wants to look at them for as long as he can, and then flings his feet around in an attempt to get there on the stride he wants. When I put poles down for Logan, he sometimes seemed surprised that they suddenly appeared in front of him — he’s perfectly willing and happy to go over them, but I couldn’t really get it to feel good when I did it.
All of this really got me thinking about catering to the busy pony mind. A lot of the crappy advice I see floating around the internet is to do lots of transitions and poles to “keep your OTTB’s mind busy”. (Oh all right, you caught me, I’m mostly shit-talking OTTB connect. SprinklerBandit mentioned this in passing the other day and it made me lol absurdly.) Which has always struck me as wildly TERRIBLE and FANTASTIC advice a the same time. Of course, in my jaded little world, that means it falls squarely in the “terrible” camp, since I don’t trust the execution skills of people looking for training advice on OTTB connect (or other horse fora, honestly).
The trick with Murray is keeping his mind engaged enough, such that exercises are actually doing something. There’s nothing actually useful in Murray flying in a so-called leg yield from the centerline to the wall like the gravitational force of the sun is pulling him there — nothing gymnasticizing, and certainly nothing thoughtful. Likewise I’m not doing anything by letting him flail his way up to a set of poles instead of waiting, thinking, and lifting his way to them. Transitions on a circle are super when Murray can maintain a forward and powerful enough gait to respond to them quickly and when I ask him to — not when he bloody well feels like it because he knows it may or may not be coming.
Lots of transitions or poles quickly crosses the line from “a useful exercise” into “drilling incessantly”, which is where the problem arises with Murray. Inaccurate leg yields build bad habits, and all of it misses the point: learning. Busy minds aren’t learning, they are just responding. And in my experience surprising your horse with a ton of transitions they aren’t ready for or throwing random poles in their path just to keep them “paying attention” just makes them stiff and anticipatory (hmm, and how might I know that….?). Plus it all ties in with a lesson it took me a long time to learn, which is to do things well when you do them, instead of just because you can.
It was more of a challenge to find the same balance on Logan, who I don’t know as well. So I stuck with the base of the dressage pyramid – keeping things slow so he could just relax, relax, relax through direction changes, small circles, and transitions. When in doubt, more relaxation will never hurt things. I think.