Since I’m still doing super boring things in the saddle (aka walking around with two coolers and letting my pony snoot all the things in the ring for 20 minutes), I’m going to talk for a while about what we used to do when we did not-boring things. Today specifically I’m going to talk about the different skills we tackled with Frankie, what order we tackled them in, and why (not that I always have stellar insights, but I’ll try to articulate it).
To start, let’s rewind to the “base” that we started with when I bought Frankie. I won’t go over this again because I talk about this literally all the time (the words “good egg” and “broke but inexperienced” come up a lot). In a nutshell, we had a physically and mentally mature horse with decent fitness and the basic buttons firmly installed. A fantastic base to work with!
The very first thing we worked on was the go button. We ignored my equitation for a while, we ignored collection (for the most part), we ignored technique, we ignored a great many things and we made. the. horse. move. forward. off. my. damn. leg. This was not a trivial exercise for a horse like Frankie, who had made it to the age of 10 without reeeeally needing to move very fast. We were NOT trying to gallop him off his feet, just make sure he understood that he must move forward promptly when asked. Thankfully he did catch on to this fairly quickly and while he’s certainly still a leg workout, I find him appropriately responsive and downright speedy when I ask.
Once we had a HAUL ASS button installed, we started focusing more on straightness. Not only must he move forward promptly, he must do so without trying to evade out sideways. The outside rein started being mentioned more often. Transitions had to happen without losing the shoulder or haunch. Walking in a straight line had to be a thing. Lateral work was our friend here, connecting his different parts and teaching him that he can move them independently. Going sideways in order to go straight, in a sense. He still likes to wiggle at the walk if left unattended, and will throw his shoulder out if I let him, but is much more educated to that straightness.
So then we had forward and straight. WOAH REVOLUTIONARY IT’S ALMOST LIKE THIS IS THE BASIS FOR EVERYTHING ELSE.
The next thing we did? Put the jumps up. This is around when we moved up to the 1.10-1.15m height and started schooling some bigger jumps at home. I don’t know that I would recommend this 100% of the time to 100% of people on 100% of horses, but I’m comfortable with how this worked for us. It wasn’t until we introduced some height that Frankie started really figuring out how to use his body a bit better over the jumps, and that now translates over the lower fences as well.
In conjunction with that, moving up to the next division introduced some more difficult turns as we started exploring the inside options. Getting him to move not only forward, but sideways off my leg was crucial. Counter-bending through turns. Maintaining good balance. All that good stuff.
This is around when we also began a more in depth conversation about adjustability. Can I place my horse where I want him? Can I feel my stride length and adjust to ride the plan? Our collection work became more intense as we pushed the envelope- changing his stride length between 10-14′ was no longer acceptable, we wanted 8-16′ of play or more. “Canter up and down like a carousel pony” was said more than once. Frankie did not like learning this skill. Collection is hard, yo. Butt muscles got sore.
And finally, we began having a really serious conversation about self-carriage. I know what many of you are thinking- WOAH THAT IS BACK ASSWARDS. I get it. But the fact is that up to this point, we were chugging along pretty well, and likely could’ve continued chugging along if I hadn’t said “hmm I wonder if Frankie can jump 1.20m” one day. He was always obedient and athletic enough to do just fine. Frankie is incredibly hard to push up into the bridle, both conformationally and in way of going. It absolutely does not occur to him at ALL and even now that he’s a bit more educated, it takes constant reminders. Convincing him that this is how life is now was very difficult and came with many grumpy ears. Getting him to carry his own dang head around sharpened up every other ask and took it to the next level.
But ultimately, we now have a horse that knows how to use his body, moves powerfully across the ground, is adjustable and forward, and is broke as shit. The self-carriage is by no means a complete check in the box- we have a ways to go to really help him understand and move this way. But so far developing this has also developed more specific skills- our lead changes are prompter and smoother, our turns are tighter, he can literally canter like a carousel pony, and his movement has much more suspension and lift to it. Even if he thinks this is a total scam and he should go be a camp pony.
Your turn! What has your approach been? How has it changed for different horses? Has it followed conventional approaches pretty closely, or have you changed your order of operations? I’m curious!