academic horse training

When I was in Australia in November, my friends instructed me that I must pick up several copies of Andrew MacLean’s seminal text — Academic Horse Training. The book isn’t available in the US and isn’t exactly easy to get anywhere outside of Australia, or even in Australia. I had to order the book directly from Equestrian Sciences Institute, who delivered them to my godmother’s house, and my god-brother ferried them to Oregon for me on a family vacation.

It was complicated.

The book is pretty hefty though, and I dawdled on cracking it, other than to look at a few pictures, until this week. At this point, I’ve read Academic Horse Training for a half an hour or so each day (um, this new life plan with dedicated reading time is awesome!!) and it’s addictive. It dropped a large number of truth bombs in just the first two chapters. I’m far from done with the book, but there are a couple of these nuggets that really stood out.

On girthiness

Andrew MacLean hypothesized that in the past (like the way past) humans have selected horses for reduced girthiness, because we rely so much on the girth to hold our saddles on, and if you can’t get a saddle on a horse, you can’t perform on it. Some horses never get over their sensitivity to girthing.

Ahem.

freeeeeeeeee you can’t girth meeeeeeeeeee

And at the same time we expect horses to be intensely sensitive to little movements of our leg mere inches away from this place that we ask them to be not sensitive to significant pressure.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense, and it (along with inconsistent signalling) helps to explain why some horses become so dull to the leg aids so quickly. Because every single day before we say “hey, listen to this leg” we first say “hey, ignore what’s going on down here.”

On spooking

One of the theories on the origin of spooking is that by suddenly and unexpectedly changing track, a prey animal can trick a predator and throw it off course. By doing this, they gain a bigger lead over the preadator or scary thing, thus making themselves more likely to survive.

So the better a horse can hide his desire or intention to spook, the more likely he is to survive. Which means that for flighty horses, the ability to make a spook super unexpected is probably literally written into their DNA.

Thus why sometimes my horse (or any horse) will be trotting along and be just fine with something and then EXPLODE out of nowhere in fear of that thing. Because if that “predator” could tell that they were going to change course before they even got there, then the element of surprise and advantage of the sudden course change would be lost. If it’s something not so worrisome, then it might be worth just giving some major side-eye and neck craning to.

So literally the most frustrating, unpredictable, and hard-to-control-and-train spook is the one that is most deeply ingrained in a fearful animal. Great.

On the fear response

The fear response is literally one of the oldest, strongest, most easily reinforced pathways in the brain. And this is especially true for prey species. For horses, one instinctive reaction involving the fear response can undo many months of careful training, and can take many more months of careful, positive associations to smush back down.

This unlocked a ton of thoughts for me — why Murray could be so great in one place, and in another place or after a big spook he just lost it. Why something like clipping was super hit or miss depending on the day, even after I had spent many hours working on it. This also underlined to me even more how important groundwork and developing a strong level of trust and understanding between rider/handler and horse is. Because sometimes I was the thing that stimulated the fear response in Murray, so he didn’t necessarily always know that something I was suggesting would be “okay”.

On bucking

It’s supposed to dislodge big cats. hahahahaha


not as effective as he hoped

I’m still only halfway through the book, but I’ve already recommended it wholeheartedly to several friends. Enough that I’m getting another shipment of books sent my way. I had a few extra copies thrown in there, so if you want your own copy, let me know (nicole g sharpe at gmail)! They should be here within a month, and I’d be happy to send one along to you. They aren’t cheap ($75 plus a little bit for shipping I think), but the book is WELL worth the money.

More nuggets from Academic Horse Training to come. I am absurdly excited to start working with my future horse using the paradigm and framework outlined in this book!!

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missing the monster

It’s been a busy week here at the ranch — firewood stacking, crop research, ag meetings, field scoping, forest exploration, water permits. The kinds of things that don’t wait for you, even if you ask nicely. I had enough time to squeeze in my pony rides, but found myself feeling a little melancholy and missing Murray.

Most of the time I’m just fine — and sometimes I’m probably inappropriately cheerful — about Murray’s retirement. Obviously I don’t wish we’d been sidelined by nine (well, ten). I know it was the right decision, and I know that this doesn’t signal the end of me riding or showing or doing fun and amazing things with horses. Maybe even horses who cross tie and tack up easily — who knows! But last week? I had the morbs.

I’m not sure exactly what brought it on. Probably because the pony hasn’t been taking to dressage like a salmon returning to his natal stream. And all of the tools I have to deal with a horse who doesn’t dressage are Murray-shaped screwdrivers, not pony-shaped drill bits. Once the pony started making a little progress, I fell into a bit of my own mental positivity trap. I was like “now that I can get you to stretch down into the bridle for one or two strides at a time, it’s straight uphill from here, little guy! nothing but PSG for us!”

But — shocker — that’s not how it went. I started thinking about leasing another horse in the barn. A horse sized horse. Who has dressage training and has competed at training level and, well, goes on the bit.

Murray wasn’t perfect, but I had a path and a plan for him. I knew where I was going in his dressage training and, for better or worse, I intimately knew what his training holes were. And I was pretty optimistic about the places we could still go. There was plenty of fun left in our relationship, even if we weren’t jumping the biggest fences or galloping at break-neck speeds.

Plus, he taught me SO MUCH. He taught me how to be patient — like, really patient — and creative. He totally enabled my obsession with continued learning and animal behavior.  And he was fun to ride!  Minus being lame, the last year and a half or so were so much more fun than struggle.  He wasn’t everyone’s type of ride, but I loved riding him.

I miss learning with him, and playing with him. I miss laughing at his ridiculousness, and telling absurd Murray stories to my friends.

It’s a funny feeling to simultaneously know that a horse wasn’t the right horse for me and yet to deeply, thoroughly appreciate him for all the lessons and learning. To be glad that you don’t have to deal with spookiness and flightiness and stupid tacking-up dances and miss him terribly at the same time.

 

who does it best? east vs. west coast dressage

A couple of weeks ago I was catching up on The Eventing Radio Show, listening to old episodes from last year. Joe Meyer, who I love as a host and a rider, made the throwaway comment that he wouldn’t mind competing out here on the west coast because everyone does so well in dressage out here. It was meant as a joke, but it piqued my interest anyway. I have definitely complained with my west coast friends about the “easy” dressage judges out east, and I’m sure people in Texas are laughing at both coasts. But who is right?

This, it turns out, is an easy enough question to answer. So I took to Startbox and Event Entries and scraped for data on dressage scores. Then I fired up R Studio and went on a big fat fishing expedition (research slang for exploring a dataset for relationships instead of testing specific hypotheses).

The short answer? There’s no difference in average dressage score between the East and West coasts for FEI events.

Data collection & other details

There are hundreds and hundreds of events held across the US every year, and usually a few hundred people at each of those events. So to save my sanity when scraping the data, I stuck to rated events that offered the FEI levels. A few USEA-only events slipped through the cracks because I’d already opened the event and at that point, it was easier to just copy that data. I tried to get an even representation of events across the year and across the country, but of course there are more events on the East coast than anywhere else.

I ended up with a little more than 5,500 rider records before I called it quits on copying and pasting and reformatting.

For each rider record, I included the division, venue, date, state, area. I included columns that allowed me to pool similar divisions that aren’t exactly the same (CIC 2* and CCI 2*, or training and training 3-day). I also included whether the level in question was USEA or FEI rated.

I didn’t include any multi-level effects for for rider or dressage judge. Laziness was not the only reason for this — by ignoring the influence of the judge (for now), I could (kindof) see if the effects across different areas had to do with riders or judges. If the same 5 judges worked at every event across the US, then we’d expect their scores to be very reliable, and differences from coast to coast would have to do with rider differences.  Of course there’s many more than 5 judges and these effects wouldn’t be so obvious, but you can see what I’m getting at.

(Obviously if you have questions or quibbles, get in touch.)

Fun fact!  

Mean dressage score in the US? 34.756. Standard deviation is 5.19.

This is the density histogram of dressage scores across all levels. You can see that though the mean is 34.756, there is a peak in scores after that — right around a nice even 35.

So there you have it. That’s the average dressage score at (rated) events across the US.

If you’re trending below a 35 you should feel chuffed as you’re doing better than most! When you score below 30, you’re doing better than about 85% of the country. Below a 25, and you’re doing better than ~97%. Down below 20? You’re the 1%!!

(Non-eventers reading this, remember that lower dressage scores are better in our world.)

The questions

Mostly, I was interested in exploring the differences between the coasts, USEA areas, and states to see if dressage scores varied significantly from place to place. And for the most part, the differences weren’t stark or necessarily significant.

At the FEI levels, there are no significant differences in dressage scores across major geographical areas of the us — east coast and west coast, the south, and the “mid”dle. If you’re not familiar with the model outputs, the important columns here are the Estimate and the asterisks. The intercept estimate represents the average dressage score of the east coast, and the estimates below are how much the other coasts differ from the east coast dressage average. So other areas of the country do have slightly higher dressage scores on average than the east coast, but not significantly so. (I’ll get to the stargazing in a second.)

You can see this reflected in the density histogram at the top of the post. There’s a lot of overlap between the dressage scores of east and west coasts at the FEI levels.

But how do the USEA levels stack up when you compare things from coast to coast?

Well, things aren’t quite so tidy. Let’s do some stargazing (those asterisks are typically thought of as good things in stats land)!

For events only sanctioned by the USEA, there east coast has a significantly lower average dressage score than any other area.  Riders in the middle of the country (basically Montana) are scoring nearly 2 points more, on average, than riders out east. People in the south get about 1.4 points more, and out west we get a measly 0.7 points more.

It’s important to note here that the “points” I’m talking about are percentage points, not raw points on tests.

Let’s break this relationship down a little more by state, shall we?

In this case, the intercept state is California. And what we see here is kinda neat! West coast states seem to line up (ish) in terms of scoring, which makes sense because they would probably pull from a very similar pool of judges. The second row in the table is Canada (from Bromont’s results).

But start comparing to the east coast, and we start to see some differences! Florida and Maryland in particular appear to be preeeetttyy generous with those dressage scores! Riders in those states score 1.36 and 2.55 points better on average, respectively. On the other hand, Montana is out there hammering their riders with dressage scores an average of 1.17 points worse than in California.

Because I’m California-centric, I plotted the distribution of scores in the lowest-scoring state (Maryland) vs. California, to show what a significant difference here looks like. It’s not a HUGE split between the curves, but you can see that there are quite a few more riders in Maryland in the sub-30 zone than you see in California.

So what does it all mean?

There could be lots of reasons that I found significant differences between the dressage scores of different states and areas. For one, I didn’t apply a single correction for multiple tests to this data set, and I explored tons and tons of potential relationships. Statistically speaking, one of them was bound to come up significant.

Could it be that riders out east are just better than riders in other states? Ummmm. I mean sure, this is one possible answer. But given the variance between states up and down the eastern seaboard, I’m not sure this hypothesis holds up.

It’s also possible that judges on the west coast and in Montana are much harsher and stricter than on the east coast. I’ve heard people say that it’s hard to “make it” in dressage in California because there’s such strong competition down here in the form of Steffen Peters and Hilda Gurney. Perhaps the presence of Olympic-level riders makes judges more strict? If so, one would expect a similar effect in Florida. And… well, the data doesn’t quite hold up to that either (but also isn’t designed to answer that question).

It seems like there might also be some hyper-local effects on the east coast, since it’s so densely populated out there. This might be due to the fact that judges out east don’t need to have a very wide travel radius in order to judge plenty of shows. If those judges tend to score a little better, then that would create pockets of shows where scores are a little more generous.

Anyway, there’s lots of potential reasons for these trends. I just enjoyed looking at them! What I can pretty confidently say is that for 2018 at least, riders in California were not getting preferential treatment from dressage judges (erhrrm, Joe!).

nuggets of Mary

Some choice nuggets of wisdom from Mary that I found scattered throughout my notes.


 

Don’t give up when you’ve got it. Both as a learner and an instructor, think, “I’ve/you’ve got it — now make it again. Good, now make it again. Now make it again.”

Got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it — this is the process of learning.


lost it

On change: it doesn’t take long to change your perceptions. Close your eyes. Hold your arms level. Now raise one arm up 45* and the other arm down 45*. Hold them there for ten seconds or so. Now, with your eyes still closed, bring your arms back to level. Open, and observe the difference between the heights of your arms. Most people will have brought their arms back to a quite uneven “level”. Just ten seconds with your arms at different heights changes one’s perception of “level”.

“I have to do it right,” blocks you from learning. Dressage is an experiment. It’s not always about doing it right every time and never doing it wrong. Give yourself the freedom to play with your riding, so you can find what is right.


experimenting!

The solution becomes the problem. Such is the way of learning.

“Do nothing” or “Do X” both assume the rider is the same as the instructor — the same feeling, the same ABCs*, the same problems. It is the trainer’s job to pole vault across the gap in understanding between the trainer and student. (See Megan’s iceberg and triangle of skills for more on the ABCs.)


connecting our left brains and right brains

In riding, you have to use your left brain and right brain. The basic process is right brain –> left brain –> left brain –> right brain. You have a feeling (right brain) –> you identify it + say the words –> you hear the words (from you or a trainer) –> you have the feeling again. The words don’t have to make perfect riding sense, as long as you can attach them to that feeling. (One rider described her feeling to Mary as “I feel like a meringue”. Mary had no idea what that meant, but the rider was clearly doing something right, so she kept telling the rider “be a meringue! you’ve lost the meringue — there you go, that’s a great meringue!”)

I’m trying usually means “I’m wishing, I’m hoping, I’m wanting, and I’m sweating — but I’m probably not doing it yet.”


lol, we did a lot of TRYING

getting stacked

Unlike many clever, productive bloggers I know, I wasn’t able to either a) get posts scheduled for the week of the Mary clinic, or b) get my Mary notes into blog-form immediately after the clinic. I have very good reasons for this, though. I was busy RIDING PONIEZ. I didn’t send in a video as a demo rider, since I had hardly ridden in the four months before the clinic. But I had some pretty big riding takeaways from the clinic, and Kate kindly offered up some of her ponies for me to play around on and practice with.

The biggest was about my plungers, specifically my faulty left plunger. Faulty? Maybe not faulty. Perhaps just a little less effective, kinda clogged with coffee grounds.

french GIF
pro tip: do not search “plunger” on giphy

Much as many people describe the horse’s body as made of train cars or blocks that you want to line up with one another (and not have the caboose off in some other universe or traveling  different direction), your torso can be thought of as stacks of boxes or building blocks (there are great images of this in When Two Spines Align). For a strong torso, your building blocks need to be stacked on top of one another squarely. They should be box-like.

But not everyone is box-like. Some of us have an extremely-well-developed gangsta lean.

I’ve been leaning off of the left side of horses since before you were born.


that’s not true at all, I’ve only been riding for nine years (so if you’re nine or younger, then it may be true)

I’ve known for a long time that there’s something wrong with my left side. On occasion, I’ve tried to counter-act the leftways lean by leaning right  or just JAMMING my left leg down. But those are not actually solutions. It turns out, my left side lean is much more complicated than that.

What the Mary clinic and riding with Kate showed me is that the problem with my left side has to do with how my boxes are stacked on that side. Somehow, my boxes are smushed down on the left side, with their center of smooshness somewhere near my hip. My left leg is shorter, my left seat bone isn’t on, and my left obliques are all shortened, and to top it all off I sit on the right side of the saddle. OH AND my left leg is less stuffed and toned than my right. It’s so embarrassing.

Kate picked this up first, when I was riding one of the horses at her barn. She encouraged me to put weight into left leg and sit with my right seatbone almost in the center of the saddle. I was like “no! I’ll fall off if I do that! My left seatbone is like 2″ off the saddle when I do that!”


not as bad, but my left side is still being a dick here

The next big piece came when we did spinal realignments during the clinic. After seeing L get her spine stacked up to neutral, I was like “me! me next! me me me!” and stripped off as much of my clothing as I could bear to shed so I could have my spine aligned properly. Hot hands packets fell out from all over my body as I did so, but I didn’t care. Anne sat me down on the bench, asked me to assume neutral, and then pushed down on my shoulders. I fell backwards at the lightest touch. Like not even a little bit unstable or wiggly, I straight up FELL BACKWARDS because my “neutral” is not straight.

Anne had to get after me a bit to get me to sit up straight, then showed the observers how my spine lacked the appropriate curves in general. I don’t have enough lordosis in my low spine, and not enough roach in my upper spine. (Roach may be the wrong word.) Anne added in a touch of curve to my lower spine, and had me lower my sternum. Then she pressed down on my shoulders again and I was a MUCH sturdier box. My leftways collapse was gone (or at least minimized) when I got my spine stacked up properly.

Image result for human spineit turns out that spines should be curved — just in the right ways

A third big piece of the puzzle came when Mary talked about the plungers and showed us how to assess our internal obliques. Okay, so what is the plunger? In short, the plunger is the feeling of weight down through your body, and you should have equal plungers on the left and right. Adopt a stance of extreme ‘tude. Your ‘tude-iest ‘tude stance. Cross your arms, sass your computer (or your dog or your boss), and lean on one leg. Feel how well the forces transmit down into that leg? That’s the plunger.

This could be wrong, but to me the plunger is strong when your box edges are all perfectly lined up, and the forces are being transmitted as efficiently as possible through your bones to your joints to the ground. Change to your non dominant ‘tude side. If you’re anything like me, you won’t even feel a plunger on that side. It’s like that leg is barely attached to the rest of your body and the ground. Mary had this whole method of moving the plunger from one side to the other but it didn’t work for me, really.

What did change my plunger was lengthening and shortening my internal obliques. There are three layers of obliques (I didn’t know! I should have, I spent enough time with animal carcasses), and they all strap your torso in slightly different directions. The internal obliques point from your hips up toward your sternum (desperately trying and failing to find a way to involve Mary’s memory device of “tits up” here). You shorten the internal obliques on one side (say the right) by bending to the right, crunching forward, and twisting to the left. You lengthen the internal obliques on that same side by bending to the left, leaning back, and twisting to the right.

We did this back and forth slowly about ten times, exaggerating the movements. Then we switched to the left internal oblique. After stretching and shrinking both sets of obliques, my left plunged SLAMMED into the ground. It was as if I could suddenly feel my weight equally through both legs. It truly felt like all of my boxes were actually lined up on my left side.

I haven’t had a chance to try this exercise in the saddle, and I’m not entirely sure it would be safe to do so. But next ride, I’ll give it a go before I hop on and report my findings.

As with all things Mary, your mileage will vary. LB-LB communication is fraught with error. But if you’re having trouble with twisting one direction or another, just know that it could very well be your abs (and plunger) working against you.

climbing rope + moving forward

Somehow, getting my horse forward has become a central theme of my life again. I had thought that I would try to establish the whole leg = go, no seriously it means go every time thing early on in my next horsey relationship. I guess I didn’t count on leasing a pony.

But, I did have a great conversation with TrJ in one of my lessons that helped me figure out a biomechanical problem I’m having, and helped us reformulate our approach to flatwork with young Samwise.

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Handsome little beastie . . . #reboundpony #weißwurst

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TrJ — and many other people who have trained me — comment constantly on my clinging and creeping leg. TrJ’s particular words are to let my heels drop down, and relax through my leg. But I’ve heard it many other ways. So finally, during a walk break in a flat lesson, I was like “soooo am I using my leg wrong? It feels like I’m climbing a rope, where they creep up a little bit more every time I squeeze until my leg us all crunched up.”

TrJ said she had a VERY similar conversation with the son of her trainer when she was a kid. The son said “it easy to solve, just push your leg down every time before you kick!” TrJ evidently tried that for a while. Seems easy enough, right? — jam leg down, kick, jam leg down again — and it turns out that is not actually the solution. I mean, not long term anyway.

The crux of the problem: the pony is not in front of my leg. I kick a little, and then I kick a bit harder and maybe squeeze a bit too, then I kick from that squeezing position, and next thing I know my feet are all the way up on the saddle flaps and my knees are at my chin like a jockey.

(I’m out of pony media, so please observe Smellinore demanding pats.)

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Place pats here . . . . #jellinoreroosevelt

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I’m at a slight disadvantage because of Sammy’s size. Because he’s short and rotund, my calf is what contacts his sides the most, and it’s a tad more difficult to make a clear kicking motion with the calf. But, TrJ pointed out, there are a lot of really tall riders out there (Boyd, William — she just refers to 4* riders by their first names like we see them all the time, ha!) who have this conformational problem on normal sized horses. However, they have no problems. Why? They get the horse responsive off the leg early.

So we spent the last few minutes of the lesson focusing on getting Sammy crisp off my leg in all gaits. He’s pretty good in the trot, especially after just a couple of kicks. But in the walk, his two-year-break from real work really kicks in. Sammy is like “no, the walk belongs to me.”

And that makes perfect sense. In jump lessons, we pretty much canter, jump a course, praise the snot out of him, and then let him do what he wants in the walk. And I plan to keep doing most of that, minus the part where the walk becomes the “pony rules time” gait.

TrJ had me do the very familiar exercise of giving a small kick and if I got no response in a couple of steps immediately following it up with a kick + tap of the dressage whip. We did several circles where I tried to walk for just four or eight steps before coming back to the trot and it was rough. Sammy was like “super, the walk is mine!” so I immediately reverted to shoving with my seat. Once I got my seat still, it was hard not to get yanked down out of the saddle but his attempts to scratch his face.

I repeated the exercises on my own during a ride and was really surprised how many repetitions it took for Sammy to start listening to my leg without the whip. I started the exercise going between trot and canter, because I know it’s a much easier transition for him to grasp. And grasp it he did! Transitions weren’t perfect, but they were there and they were prompt.

In the walk I got absolutely tuned out. Like, the second we were walking, I basically didn’t exist. I was maintaining the contact (insomuch as we had a connection at that point), so it wasn’t like I was throwing the reins away and saying “break time” with one aid and “work time” with another. But I did probably 20 or 25 transitions from walk to trot where I needed a light tap of the whip to back up the leg aid. To the point where I was like “oh man, I’m going to have to quit doing this in a second because it’s starting to feel an awful lot like a fight.” Finally, somewhere around attempt 26 I guess, I got a transition into trot just from my leg. It wasn’t super prompt, but it came before I got the whip organized and I was just like YES YES PONY YES and threw the reins away and let him have his head. I did one more transition to trot and Sammy was like “fine, I’ll play your stupid game” and then I practically leapt off and stuffed his face full of cookies.

your human games are stupid and you’re stupid and you should feel stupid, human

It did not take Murray 20-25 walk-trot transitions to get the idea of this exercise, so I was a little worried about the amount of time it took Samwell. But it turns out the pony is a clever little cookie, and I haven’t had to have the discussion more than one time per ride since then. So it took longer to stick at first go, but it has stuck much better than with my own horse!

Originally TrJ suggested I work on a bit of getting Sammy forward and a bit of getting Sammy to push into the bridle during each ride, and bring the two together as we made progress on each. But they converged way faster than we expected, and getting pony forward has resulted in much better interest in stretching forward and down. So now I get to work on both at once, which is obviously so easy for a unitasker like myself.

And for those of you who sometimes feel like you’re climbing rope when riding your horse, I have an exercise for you….

weißwürste

Things have been coming along quite nicely with the little white pony, and we’ve had some big breakthroughs in our flat rides. I’ve also started calling him “the little weißwürste (weisswurst)”, because he is white and sausage shaped. And weisswurst are white sausages. He thinks it’s hilarious.

Leasing is definitely a bit odd. I can feel how the pony wants to shoot over his right shoulder an is a little weak on his left hind. I want to fix it, because I know that getting straighter and more symmetrical will be better for us both in the long run. On the other hand — it’s not totally my problem. Not that I won’t work toward making him stronger and better (see: the campsite rule). But it makes it feel less… personal, if that makes sense. Like my future with this horse doesn’t live or die based on my ability to get the little one’s feet moving evenly beneath him. It’s an exaggeration, but kinda gets at the feeling.


i thought he was starting to look a bit trimmer and sportier but nope — still a sausage!

Anyway. I’ve had two flat lessons with TrJ to date, both focused on trying to convince Sammy to move into the contact, stretch out his neck, and lift up his back. To my great relief, TrJ mentioned in the first lesson that while the pony is fancy and does have all the moves, he hasn’t really be asked to use himself properly, consistently, or by a rider who isn’t a child in the last two years. His job, recently, has been teaching (a few) kids the ropes of up-down, and jumping whatever he’s pointed at. So it’s not just that I suck at riding and can’t get him on the bit. It’s that he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have to do that.

And like, he was really sure he doesn’t have to do that. The first lesson TrJ and I tried a variety of things to get Sammy to think about the connection. I could flex him (pretty firmly, too), I could move him in and out on the circle, I could kiiinda bend him — wasn’t too bendy really — I could try to massage one rein or the other or both or intermittently and he would respond by doing…. nothing. Literally nothing different. Like, he wasn’t defiant or rude or reactive at all. Sammy just straight up ignored me.

So. That was…. interesting.

But I get it. This pony has literally spent the last two years being praised and rewarded for safely packing kids around by balancing on his underneck and ignoring their unsophisticated hands or wild flailing.

 vs.  
standard sausage shape vs. desired dressage sausage shape
(these are actually weisswurst)

However, it is still crazy frustrating to be like “hello, I am doing several things right and also everything in my power to get you to even think about yielding to one of these reins” and be met by nothing in response. From a positive-reinforcement perspective, it also means you have nothing to reward. Which makes things hard for the reinforcement-crazed like me.

Between our first and second flat lessons, a week apart, we made some progress on our own. Sammy started thinking more about giving to the bridle. And in that second lesson we got a few moments where he put his head down or stretched into the connection. I mean, I’ll take what I can get.

he’s pretty meh on mud though so water-at-speed could be interesting

It was after that lesson, though, that Sammy finally gave me something to work with. Part of it was definitely getting him more forward and responsive to the leg (probably more in another post). But the other part was, I think, just persistence. I wore him down to the point where he was like “fucking fine I’ll see if I can give this bitch what she wants.”

He’s really motivated by praise and scratches, and especially by walk breaks. So if there’s something to reward, I definitely have things to reward him with. While trying to get him off my left leg a bit better, Sammy started actually protesting the connection a bit. He offered to run me into the wall (politely declined), and then grudgingly moved off my leg. When I started back up on the circle, he was like “ugh FINE” and stretched his nose out and took my hands out in front of his withers.

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Handsome little beastie . . . #reboundpony #weißwurst

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It was so awesome! Finally, I was getting some kind of response to my riding, instead of just rote reactions that he knows are required (turn, stop-ish, go-ish). I managed to get him stretching down a few times in that ride. The next one was even better, because we got to that place much faster. Sammy was annoyed that I insisted on any kind of connection with the left rein, and was almost shaking his head with annoyance. I ignored the head shaking, tried to align his body a bit better by putting his left hind under him (tracking left), and gave him somewhere to go with my hands. It’s tempting to say it worked like a charm or he plunked right on to the bit, but he didn’t. He did, however, test out the connection and the new place that this alignment allowed him to go. I just tried to stay present but non-restrictive with the connection, and praised the crap out of him every time he stretched out and down.

I actually had to cut my ride short, because he was being so good and I didn’t want to ruin anything. Which is kindof a win-lose-win situation. Because obviously I wanted to keep riding and having fun, but didn’t want to reward Sammy’s efforts with more work when he wanted to be done. So I stole some of TrJ’s arena cookies (she keeps a jar by the gate for after lessons, Sammy beelines towards her any time he so much as suspects she’s coming in to the arena) to stuff in his face as a big reaward for a good pony.

who cares about sunsets, give me treatz

We’ll make a little dressage pony out of him yet!