In the midst of all my usual winter doom and gloom, I managed to set up a lesson with my favorite trainer. Not a riding lesson – let’s face it, I’m not riding much right now – but a groundwork lesson.
I’ve never actually had a groundwork lesson with Confetti. Most of the Haflinger leasers have ended up taking one or two, since Haffies are sort of notorious for being headstrong and stubborn and not necessarily polite, but Confetti has consistently good ground manners (and some excellent past training!) and I have enough experience that we’ve managed pretty well. Her previous owner has led by example in some of my more deficient areas, and I’ve learned bits and pieces from working with the other Haffies that I’ve been able to apply. It was passably good enough.
Emma reflected on the differences between Isabel and Bali, and I recently found myself contemplating the differences between Fetti and one of the other Haffies.. except things didn’t go quite the way they should in that mental discussion, even though that took a while for me to realize. I let Fetti get away with some things on the ground because I see her as playfully testing rather than genuinely threatening my authority. In other areas, I settle for less than ideal because I believe that’s all she can give me, or that I’m doing something wrong in asking. That last bit would be valid.. except.. when I work the other Haflinger, I demand that she be 100% on and listening to me, and I get after her if she’s not, with the expectation that I’m asking correctly and she’s just ignoring my ask.
I should not be expecting less of the horse who is equally well trained and who I work with significantly more often. That’s not fair to me and that’s not fair to her. My standards are too low. Trainer C called me out on that pretty quickly.
From there, it breaks down to a few smaller things.
- Confetti has me trained to walk a large circle in the middle of the round pen and to constantly nag her into working. I wouldn’t (or shouldn’t, anyway!) do that while riding – why am I doing that on the ground? Instead, I need to walk a small circle and demand she keep going, then get after her when she doesn’t, allowing her the opportunity to fail. I had started working on my smaller circles on and off in the last month, but without combining that with the demand-for-forwards, it went nowhere fast. In this small circle, I need to make sure I’m behind the drive line, and it’s working best for me to think of being aligned with her tail.
- I have a hard time being consistent with my asks. I need to be very clear with my aids on the ground: point, verbal cue, step, lunge whip. Stop asking as soon as she responds. The release of pressure is the reward.
- On a similar note, don’t chase with the whip: head straight out on the circle towards a point that she needs to vacate rather than aiming for her specifically. This is hard for me and I’m working to be conscious of what I’m targeting.
There were also some more specific things we worked on:
- Yielding hindquarters. This is something I noted that I’d been having trouble getting both in the saddle and on the ground, but was lacking confidence that I was asking correctly and knew I needed help. There are numerous reasons to have this button installed, including as an e-brake for true disengaging hindquarters. It took a little while to both get her to understand the question and then get her to understand that she really did have to give the correct answer. I suspect my previous half-hearted/incorrect attempts left her feeling that she didn’t really have to cross. Oops! In the lesson, we worked on asking for this via standing a few feet sideways of her shoulder and driving into her hip, dropping the rope at her halter plus walking away as soon as she crosses. I am the biggest challenge here as I figure out where my feet, hands, legs, and torso are all supposed to be at once.. while moving.. and watching her feet.. and remembering to drop and turn away when she gets it right. Yikes.
- “Friendly game” – or at least that’s how my mental shorthand is for it, since this is similar to what I’ve seen of Parelli’s first game. Desensitize her to random whip-swings, should be able to touch her everywhere with whip, gently swing it over and slide it back across her back. In the lesson we worked this with the lead rope since she was amped and reactive; since then I’ve been able to do it with both lead rope & whip, as I think I’d done on occasion previously. This will give her a safe place and a mental reset/relaxation: she’s supposed to relax when we go to this. This also gives me a ‘quit anticipating we’re not always doing stuff!’ button.. which I need frequently when schooling things such as yielding hindquarters.
- Not pulling while lunging. This has irritated me, and I have pushed her on it just a little bit, but mostly I’ve stressed that I was doing something wrong/she wasn’t capable/I was asking too much. Nope: I just need to correct hard when she pulls, be light when she’s not pulling, and expect her to not pull.
- Better boundaries: she does not get to come into my space, and I should make my space bubble bigger. It is not difficult to keep her near me, that’s her comfort zone. Thus we need to work on keeping her a little further out. I also need to do this with leading: she should stay at the end of a loose lead rope, and it’s her responsibility to keep it loose but still at the end, whether it’s a short rope or a long one. I do this a little bit on the trail. I need to do this consistently all the time everywhere.
- Escalate anxiety during groundwork. I need to find ways to stress her out on the ground (noisy flags? scary things?) and teach her to relax so those confidence-building concepts can carry over to the trail. A thought: maybe work this in the scary corner of the arena sometime?
- Reversing direction via turning in rather than out. I tried this with Fetti a few times, established that neither of us had the faintest idea what we were doing, and quit. I’m willing to flail about at things that one or both of us should know. It looked to me that she’d never been asked to do this at liberty in the round pen before. This starts with the concept of ‘drawing the horse in’ – something I have done, ever-so-minimally around puddles. However, she needs to yield her hindquarters and turn to face the center of the circle. Fetti struggled a bit to understand what was being asked even with this with the trainer, and that really reinforced my feeling that I was completely right in asking for help before screwing her up on this! This is accomplished by taking a step across the drive line (I’m still best marking ‘center’ with a lead rope or some item, and stepping across this) and then walking backwards in a (small) spiral going the same direction that she was previously going.
We’re still working on part 2, which has her actually reversing direction. In practice, I have had her do a full 360 turn away rather than just taking three steps and going. I think I understand the concept of how it should work – her shoulder should yield out and have her doing a turn on the haunches – but in reality, I’m getting a beautiful turn on the forehand as she orients her nose towards me, whereever I am. (Haunches yielding.. check.)
Today, I put her on the line and asked for some reverses. Yield hindquarters to halt and face center, visually switch whip hands, point, cluck.. and in at least one instance I had to really get after her shoulder with the whip to get her to start moving again and go. For whatever reason, it wasn’t clicking. After that, things improved; we could mostly-consistently go from forwards to facing center to forwards in the other direction again off verbal and hand cues on a line. I tried again off the line and we managed it beautifully in one direction and failed spectacularly the other direction. Well. Work in progress!