Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Trickle Down Training

Slingshot at the Big Fall Show

Last Sunday marked the official end to SFD’s show season with OVCTA’s Big Fall Show. As I took my whites and show coats out of the trailer, I was thinking about the year.  This year I have had several horses accomplish some wonderful things in the show ring, and all of my mounts seem to be making steady, consistent progress, even the ones that haven’t headed down the centerline. Which got me to thinking about trickle-down theory.  But because I am a horse trainer and not an economist, my thoughts centered around centerlines, not dollars and cents.

Secret and my road to Sport Horse Nationals began last January, when I started focusing on every detail.  I was fresh back from auditing the FEI Symposium in Florida, with Steffen Peter’s admonition to “ride every movement for a 9, every day,” fresh in my mind. If I asked for a canter from the walk, and she tightened her neck even a bit, we’d do it again.  Every halt needed to be square.  I kept telling Linda, “it’s a competition year, not a training year.”

But in retrospect, I think I was a bit incorrect. 

So I spent the spring and summer perfecting Secret’s reactions, and, as is her nature, she became a more and more obedient girl. We clearly defined the beginning and end of each movement, every time, until it became habit.  If she did something less than a 9, the thought in my head was “Secret, we can do better.”  Before long, I knew I could count on the canter-walk-canters, the straightness of the centerlines, and the steadiness of the left shoulder in.

Since habits are habitual, I found that mindset trickling over to the other horses. I insisted that my all of mounts be calmly obedient, even the ones who were not heavily campaigning.  Venus became more obedient in her canter-walk transitions. Flash started to wait for my seat, which made the little pinto-power bounce even more. Sling became steadier in the connection.  Ember and ET, the 4-year-olds, became more consistent in their reactions to the leg aid. Star, the fun little sales horse who moved on to her new home in August, became more focused on me and less on her environment.

So the summer training continued, and my habits evolved.  If I wanted to ride every movement for a 9, I needed to make sure my mounts were right with my aids, every moment, not just when I needed to ask for the 9.  I started to utilize more range in my half-halts–in addition to a preparation half-halt and a re-balancing half-halt, I began to use a smaller, more subtle “are you with me?” half-halt when I was focusing on the quality of the gaits and the harmony.  Not surprisingly, my mounts improved not only in more prompt responses when I used a stronger, preparatory half-halt, they began to show better quality of gaits and harmony.  My increased focus on my half-halts was trickling down to increased focus from my horses.

Focus, like habits, develop over time.  One horse, in particular, showed amazing growth in his ability to focus.  Sling, who we refer to as “ADD boy,” started his season doing well in the numbers, but I wasn’t completely happy with his rideablilty in the show ring. So once he earned his regional qualifying scores, I decided to keep him home.  

The only catch with staying home is at home it is easy to miss how much things are improving, especially things that develop slowly. So totally I missed just how well he was beginning to lock into my seat.

Then I took “ADD Boy” to the Big Fall Show, in the gusting, cold wind, and rode First 2.  He was with me every step of the way. His back was so connected to the movements of my hips that it felt like he was following my thoughts.  Lisa Schmidt, the judge, noticed, and rewarded the ride with a 71.89%, a 7 on submission, and an 8 on harmony.   And it wasn’t a fluke—he was super in both clinics he attended this fall.  Both Catherine Haddad and Lendon Grey both commented on his obedience and work ethic.  He needs a new nick name, “ADD Boy” no longer fits.

My springtime comment to Linda proved to be inaccurate. The increased focus on the details required to excel in the competitive arena had directly improved the training overall. Secret’s big year had trickled down to create a flood of improvement in all of my horses.