One aspect of training that my previous article reminded me that I should talk about is the importance of priorities. That article was about following arms, and I said, I don’t care about the quality of the leg-yield as long as the arms are following. In the instance in the article, arms are what we’re focusing on, so they’re our priority and everything else must become irrelevant.
I think a very common way of thinking that severely limits the rapidity of progress is that the rider tries to fix all the problems at once; she tries to work on the final block without finishing the supporting layers. Using the leg-yield as an example again, the rider may think: follow with the arms, prevent the horse’s shoulders from leading, keep him forward, keep my shoulders back, etc. To the brain, this is a jumble of messages and each is given about 10% concentration. Progress is completely based on percentages: the higher the percentage of doing something correctly, the sooner it will become instinctual. The body learns by doing, so if what the rider’s trying to improve is successful less than 50% of the time, it will never become better, much less habit. What I insist on is 100% correctness of the task we’re working on; everything else becomes basically irrelevant. Of course we do everything as correctly as we can, but our priority and 100% of our focus is on the task we’ve chosen to work on.
I often actually use the movements to test the rider and ensure that their concentration remains on our chosen task while it’s doing things–doing a leg-yield or a shoulder-in so their thinking must stray, but their focus remains unobstructed. Let’s say we’re working on something as simple as heels down. I’ll begin with the rider on a circle where she can solely focus on heels down. Once she proves that she can keep her heels down when that’s the only thing she must think about, I challenge her with adding the complication of doing other things. At first it will be simple things like going all the way around the arena, changing direction, serpentining. Once she can do that, I’ll add actual movements.
Transitions are very good challenges that I normally add before we leave the circle. For things like heels down, shoulders back or hands down, they’re a perfect challenge for the mind to have to plan for something else while the body maintains its position. For following, it’s more complex but equally as valuable. The reason it’s more complex is because the arm follows differently according to the gait: the elbow opens and closes forward and back in walk and canter but up and down for trot. I generally still choose to work on following during the transition before we leave the circle, but whether I do depends on the circumstance. Perhaps if the rider is having trouble making the following at one gait natural, I’ll wait to add changing the gait till after the around the ring work.
Although I’d always known this technique is critical in riding, what made its importance crystal clear to me was actually off horse back in therapy. When I first got my cane, I used to take guarded walks to practice my technique, and I realized that I was doing what I’d always told students not to do: trying to improve everything at once–step bigger with my right leg, don’t lean forward, keep my shoulders back, left shoulder down. I eventually became frustrated that after several walks, I’d not improved at all, and then my mistake dawned on me. The next day, I thought only bigger step with my right leg, and what do you know? After three or four walks of solely focusing on that, I felt significant improvement. Then I was able to tackle each task one by one, and I became able to independently walk with a cane in a relatively short period of time.
The same system of prioritizing expectations applies to training the horse as well as the rider. For instance, we’re working on walk to canter transitions, and each time we do it, the horse picks up the canter but comes above the bit. Working on on the bit becomes the priority and I insist that the rider’s sole focus is on roundness. I don’t care if the horse flubs his way into canter, takes a trot step, bucks before he canters, anything, as long as he stays in the bit. The rider must be sure to reward him. Conversely, if we’re working on walk to canters and the horse doesn’t ever pick it up totally cleanly, our priority is only that he leaps straight into canter, and I don’t care at all if he comes straight above the bit in the process. We focus only on him picking up the canter cleanly, and until he’s reliable doing that, our focus remains solely on that.
If the horse does both–comes above the bit and doesn’t pick up the canter cleanly–our priority must first be that he picks it up cleanly. The reason for this is that there’s no point trying to improve something that doesn’t exist, and an unclean transition isn’t a transition at all. The same rational applies to the leg-yield; first the rider must insist that the horse yield to the leg, then she can focus on the symmetry of his body and his roundness.
When working on the horse, I insist on 100% correctness while we’re doing a task that requires what I’m focusing on, but I’m sure to always be cognizant of the fact that the horse may be resisting what I want because it’s physically difficult for him. For instance, if he’ll never take an honest bend to the left and I’ve chosen to focus on that, I’m going to be sympathetic to the fact that his body may be tighter that way and give it many breaks from the strain simply by going to the right. I’ll work the left side often, but not for long periods of time.
Giving the horse a break from what we’re demanding is important because, if it’s not physical, we also don’t want to overload his mind with . However, this mentality very rarely applies to teaching my students. If a rider is working on shoulders back, there’s never a time she’s allowed to slump; if she’s working on heels down, she must not have her heels up for one stride; if she’s working on following, she must follow every minute of the session. She can keep the sessions short, but 100% of her time on the horse must be correct. A rare exception is if the rider’s working on sitting the trot because this is physically and mentally challenging. If we’re working on that, my breaks consist of canter work or walk breaks.