Spring Training has begun! I'll update you here now and then with some updates of the horse's training this spring, and some little tid bits and tips of how to help the different types of horses.
Skip - a Quarter Horse palomino gelding
Goals: to do some cutting and western events/rodeo, and to have really good ground manners.
I am really enjoying working with Skip - he is a 'thinker'. He is very smart and easily picks up new patterns and ideas. When I worked with him yesterday, my priorities for training became clearer.
Every time I work with horses I always start with a little ground work- and sometimes a lot of ground work! I started Skip with backing up, sideways, forehand and haunch turns, and some circles. The Backing up helps to establish that he needs to move out of my space, i.e. 'I am leader'. The sideways, forehand and haunch turns help teach him that its about specific communication - not just whoa and go. The turns on the ground will also help him understand them when I ask for it in the saddle. The circles help Skip to learn his responsibilities of maintaining gait, direction, and to watch where he is going. The circles also give me a chance to see if the horse is full of energy, or scared of any part of the arena or bouncing tack because we travel throughout the ring and over poles/small jumps.
Skip started to anticipate what I wanted - he assumed that after doing circles one way that we change direction and do the other way. I like a horse that wants to please, but I want him to wait for cues too - so I changed this up and would ask him to back out and wait, then come back in to me, or back out and move sideways. I wanted our ground work to be about the conversation we were having, not just a routine he knows.
Skip was really respectful and tried really hard. Next was some riding. The mounting took a bit of time - because I don't get on a horse that is walking off. Skip seemed to be in a hurry to get going - so it is important that I teach him it's good to wait for cues. When he stood still I would rub and reward him by relaxing/backing away/stepping down, then I would re approach and attempt to mount. I repeated until he stayed still for the entire mounting process. Once I was on, Skip still seemed to be thinking that it was all about go, go, go - not in a dangerous or super fast way, but he kept moving like he thought he needed to be jogging, or trotting.
I spent about 20-30 min just walking and practicing steering with my legs/body - it was very clear that Skip thinks leg cues just mean go. It is important that Skip knows to look for leg/body cues and what they mean, not just go. Especially for rodeo/cutting work which requires quick responses and turns to body cues.
I used obstacles in the ring to help Skip visualize the turn and understand the leg cues better - so for example instead of just riding a random circle, or turning across the ring, I asked him to weave a set of standards, circle around a barrel, or do a figure 8 pattern around obstacles. This helped Skip to figure out where we were going and gave me a clear focus.
Once he mastered steering from leg cues at the walk, we did some at the trot. This is going to take a lot of miles and repetition for Skip to get really good at it, but my goal for our 1st try was to get him understanding, relaxed, and moving in the right direction - and all were accomplished.
We also worked on some forehand and haunch turns - trying to help him understand specific leg aids. At first he thought it meant go, but Skip figured it out quickly and gave me some nice turns, and as soon as he did we moved on. I find horses learn best if once they have started to grasp a concept that you move on to something else, and then try again later.
Most of the riding I did on a loose contact because Skip has a bad habit of really pulling on the reins. I am helping him understand having a soft mouth by having really soft and gentle contact, but if he starts tossing his head my hands bump him - I make the right thing comfortable and the wrong thing uncomfortable.
The head tossing I'm told is something Skip has been doing for a while - and when he had his teeth done he did have some scarring in his mouth. I'll try riding him him bitless next ride to help see if it's just a learned behaviour, or if it's having something in his mouth that is the bigger issue.
All in all Skip is well under way to becoming an excellent Western horse!