Monday, March 14, 2016

Training "The Breakfast Club"

My mind loves patterns. As I go about my job of training dressage horses, I noticed that the patterns of a few of my mount’s personalities seems pretty similar to high school, which got me thinking of the movie, “The Breakfast Club.” 

Before I dive into this slightly-stretched metaphor, I need to comment a bit about all the factors that go into  developing a training plan for a specific dressage horse:  
  • ·         steps of the technical knowledge they are trying to impart in their horse
  • ·         horse’s natural physical  natural strengths and weaknesses,
  • ·         horse’s mental and physical sensitivity level
  • ·         horse’s age and training history
  • ·         horse’s ability to accept pressure
  • ·         horse’s attention span
  • ·         horse’s intensity of their innate fight or flight and herd instinct. 

But for this blog, I’m just going to babble about the horse’s personality, because frankly, figuring out how to get a horse to try is one of the things I love about training hoses. And figuring out a horse’s personality is key to figuring out what makes them want to try.  

 The only way to develop that stand-out-in-a-crowd expression, along with the obedience to perform a tidy test, is to train with the horse’s personality in mind.  Every horse is different, and three horses I’m preparing  for the showring for their owners this season so clearly fall into separate categories that I thought I’d share a bit of it with you.  All three are wonderful horses, and are each “A” students, but three very different kinds of A’s.  In order to bring out their best, I need to figure out the best way to motivate them.  In describing their personalities, I find that, much like the characters from “The Breakfast Club,” high school stereotypes seem to work best.

Slingshot - The Millennial

Sling's big ego shows clearly in this shot of him as a 5-year-old.
Slingshot is a millennial by nature.  Typical millennial-types are nicely-put-together, talented horses, who try to get by on good looks. If he were a high-school kid, he’d spend afternoons in mom’s basement, enjoying his video games, or goofing off on the basketball court.  Academically, he’d be the 90% A—the one who put in just enough effort to make the grade, and not a bit more. This is not the horse that digs deep and tries 100%, it’s the one who figures out how much you want, and that’s what you get.  If he were in the cast of “The Breakfast Club,” he’d be the jock.

For this horse, training has to be a game, and he has to feel like he’s winning the game. If I pick at him too much, he’ll get sulky. If I praise try, even sloppy try, he’ll try harder.

I’ve trained many, many millennials.  Most of my re-train sales horses have fallen into this category, as millennials often come with tempers (especially as youngsters), and angry horses are not fun to ride.  So I’m able to get them inexpensive, help them get over their anger, figure out how to get them to try, then find them an owner who understands their minds.

A millennial re-train horse (which thankfully Sling is not) often has a defensive side, so I have to be careful not react to that.  My mental self talk has to be motivational.  I often think “play with me,” instead of focusing on my technique. I am over-the-top gushy with the praise with these guys, and they love it.

Every horse has their “issue,” that thing that keeps creeping up time and time again in the training. For the millennials, often that issue is keeping them in front of the leg.  This, if the horse has a temper, can make him tricky to train.  In order to get a millennial in front of the leg, he has to be pain free, uphill, and straight, and then held to a consistent standard of obedience.  If I change my standard for a day, because I’m not feeling 100%, or I think he’s feeling tired, or whatever, I’ll pay for it the next day.  If there’s an escape route, either in the balance or the standard, the millennial will take it. But when the balance, straightness, and obedience are there, they often give a clear, wonderful feeling of “locking in.”

As I said, millennials like to play games, and happily do things that are easy for them, so fitness is very important.  But repetition does not work with these guys. To help them get strong enough to climb to the next level, I figure out an exercise that they like, and pair it with an exercise that they view as work, and go between the two.  If the game is fun and easy for my millennial, he’ll get tons of gushy praise, which will bring out his playful, expressive side. Once he’s in playful mode, his ego kicks in, and the sky’s the limit.

Capitano -The Overachiever

Capi looks a bit surprised that I'm thrilled with is performance, doesn't he?

Capi, a typical overachiever-type, has a very intense, slightly insecure, very obedient nature.  He’s the high-school student who lived in the library or the lab, was on the chess team, and not only got the A, he did all of the extra credit, and ended the year with a 110%.  He’s the kind of horse that will give you a movement for a “10,” and apologizing because it’s not an “11.”  If this were “The Breakfast Club,” he’d be the brain.

For this type, he has to feel like he’s pleasing me. He’ll work hard, and do things exactly the way he thinks I want them done.  So I support “try,” and reward when he gets it 100% correct.  When I praise my accountants, it’s more of a humming under my breath for “try”, and a halt and stroke when he understands something. If I did the elaborate, gushy millennial -volume praise on one of my accountants, it would scare him.

Because the overachiever types never think they are good enough, they often feel tense at the start of a ride.  Riding around with not much structure, waiting for them to relax, will make them more tense, not less. These guys crave routine.  They don’t like strong, quick aids, they like supportive, encouraging aids. 

These guys are fun to show because they will let me focus on my technique and truly influence every step in the arena.  If things fall apart in the ring, he’ll be focused enough on me to put it back together. 

Unlike the millennial, the overachievers thrive on repetition. They will happily let you go over each detail of the set up of each movement.  They will memorize your pattern to set up each movement, then, if you are consistent, offer that movement at just the right time.  When I’ve done freestyle with my accountants, they always learn the music cues.

The problem with this personality type is, because they try too hard, the tension often affects the swing in their back.  This creates all kinds of funky gait abnormalities, like tempo variations, unlevel knees, etc, that may look lame, but the lameness is not coming from their bodies at all. The funky footwork is coming from their mind.

Because the overachiever is so locked into doing what the rider wants, he often won’t “lock in” to his ideal balance point like the millennial will.  I use my video camera more with this type than any others.  Because the accountants are more committed to doing what I want than what is easy or correct, it’s up to me to learn which feel brings out his best gaits.  

BR Danny’s Secret -The Student Council President

Secret's confidence was right at home at Dressage at Devon
Secret completely fits this description.  She has an intense personality, but little insecurity.  True to her type, she always knows what’s best.  She would be the high school student who, in addition to being student council president, sings in the choir, runs track, makes honor roll with a mid-range A, and always has her things in order.  In addition, she not only knows what is best for her, she knows what is best for everyone else.  If this were “The Breakfast Club,” she would absolutely be the princess.

For this type, they need to feel right. These guys have the work ethic of the overachiever, but have the ego, and sometimes a touch of the temper, of the millennial.  Fair is the name of the game when developing Madam President.  When I praise her, the emotion coming from her is more of “yes, that was lovely, wasn’t it?”  This type I can give a quick scratch on the withers in the corner and keep going, and she will be very happy to continue to be perfect.

As schoolmasters, Madam  President is wonderful. She’s patient enough to let her student sort it out, and confident enough in her skills to lock into the movement when the rider gets it right. 

When learning new skills, though, Madam President can be tricky.  Because of her confidence, she will often take over in the ring if allowed. She knows best, so I have to make sure my direction is clear, logical and fair. Because if she thinks I’m wrong, she’s going to do it her way.

I show Madam President very differently than I do my accountants.  I set up movements for her, then throw in a helpful half halt every now and then, and accept what she offers.  I never show a president at a level they aren’t 100% comfortable with, as helping her out when there’s show pressure doesn’t always work out well.  I always teach the presidents their tests, as when they know best, they show best.

Just as described in the synopsis of “The Breakfast Club,” all horses tend to have a bit of each personality in them, and sometimes change shift a bit as they become more mature and confident in their training.  But for now, we’ll see what the judges think of the performances of these three very different personalities.

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