Two things I was super pleased with this week, were the progress Rain Dance made in his soft feel, and in his transitions. These two things take time for many horses. A lot of people will just settle for good enough with their horses. They make excuses like; "He's just not a soft horse." Or "I'd rather him be less reactive when I ask him to move up a gait or to stop, than him be overly reactive so it's OK if he's a bit dull." All of these things are nothing more than excuses.
A horse is as soft as you allow him to be from your training, and reinforcement of that training. Getting your horse to be soft comes from consistency, repetition, and most importantly starting off by offering the best deal possible. I think many people get stuck at that point. They know their horse won't be soft to a subtle cue, so they start with the amount of pressure they need to end with. Imagine how you teach a dog to sit.... You don't start by pushing his butt down into the sit position. You start with the hand cue you eventually want him to respond to, and then follow through with pushing his butt down when he doesn't find the right answer. If you never give the dog the cue first, he will always need you to push his butt down to sit. A horse is the same way in not only achieving a soft feel, but in anything you reach him. Do not hold a grudge against your horse! Start with the cue you eventually want him to respond to, and then follow through with the more direct cue. Weather that be more pressure on the rein before holding steady and then waiting for them to give. Or starting out with leg pressure, and then following through with your reins when you want to teach them to come off your leg. To bring this tangent back on track to Indian Rain Dance, this week his soft feel drastically improved. This was due to a few factors... One, by following what I outlined above. Two, by not rushing him and continually allowing him to work on what he needed to before advancing to something new (as I mentioned last week). Lastly, I actually thew in something a bit unconventional to help Rain Dance. I rode him in a German Hackamore for several sessions this week. A German Hackamore is short shanked, has a wide noseband, and a curb chain. I've used this on many OTTBs. Some stay in in permanently, and some I've used it to transition horses to the bit, or as a break from the bit if they seem to have reached a plateau in improvement. Since racehorses are taught to grab the bit, and many jockeys and exercise riders tend to balance on their hands, many OTTBs can be stiff, dull in the mouth, or have a tendency to pull. The hackamore allowed for me to work on the same principals of a soft feel, but used a different point of pressure that Rain Dance had not been exposed to previously. So rather than his immediate conditioned response to resist pressure to the bit, he was more apt to give to the pressure on his nose and under his chin. Some people may view this as being inconsistent. Why make a change in equipment rather than just continuing on with repetition? A good analogy to this point is teaching a child to tie their shoes... When I was little, I just could not understand the "make a bunny ear, go around the bunny ear, and then pull through." For weeks I tried and it just didn't click. One day, my older brother came up to me and said "make two bunny ears, cross them, bring one under and pull." It clicked! I could tie my shoes by myself! And low and behold, once I understood how to do it one way, and understood the concept, I picked up how to do it traditionally as well. I put a snaffle back on Rain Dance today after a week in the hackamore, and his softness had greatly improved. I used the same cue, with a different pressure point. I built up his confidence, and was able to release him and let him become good at giving to pressure. So when I put the bit back in his mouth, he had something he was able to draw from, and it made his job easier.
The other thing I was greatly pleased with in Rain Dance this week was his improvement in transitions. Both downward and upward. The biggest places Rain Dance needed work in were upward from trot to canter, and downward from canter to trot, and in his stops as a whole. It was never that I could not get these transitions from him, it was that he would be what I call "dramatic" going upward, and dull coming down. The trot to canter transition would start off rushed. It would take a bit to get him into the canter, and when he did pick it up he would be rather unbalanced and quick. The biggest way I find to help this, is to first work on balancing your slower work. Second, when the faster gait is picked up, do not go to grabbing on them to slow them down. Redirect their energy. Steer, and make circles. But do so by making a series of short strait lines. When you hold a rein to keep a horse in a circle, they want to lean on it. How many times have you had a horse start picking up speed, so you hunker down on your inside rein only to find yourself going faster in a smaller area? If you are truly out of control, that is where your one rein stop comes in. But if your horse is just going a bit faster than you want, give him something else to think about. Make him wonder what you want next, instead of him picking up speed. I see so many people who do that small speedy circle, or they just stop their horse and go to try again. But by allowing your horse to break gait, you are teaching them "Hey, if I take off fast I get to come back down to a trot or a walk. And that is less work." But, if I just redirect his energy, and make him work at that faster speed, he will soon figure out that it is much easier to maneuver at the pace I want him at, than when he is rushing.
Lastly, lets talk downward transitions. Many an OTTB have trouble with making this a smooth transition. They get to where they lean, on your hands in your stop, and they stop with their front end, rather than their hind. I have two exercises that I typically use to work on my stops. I do a lot of stopping and backing, which is what you see many people do, and this technique works well. But something new I have begun using that I want to highlight here is a drill I picked up from spending time with Dick Pieper. Actually, rather than explaining it here I'm going to link to a video Western Horseman did with him to save us all some time. I highly recommend watching it, it will be a three minutes well spent.